IN THE battle over welfare reform, the blame game already has started. The White House stands ready to point the accusing finger at Congress, if lawmakers dare to take the tough steps that are needed, while Congress cowers in fear at the thought of being blamed for "lacking compassion."
But hope springs eternal. Just in case Washington decides it wants to forget politics, here are a few of the steps it can take to get welfare spending under control and break the cycle of dependency:
* The growth of total welfare spending must be capped at 3 percent per year. In 1965, Americans paid about 1.5 percent of the Gross National Product for welfare. By 1993, we were paying more than 5 percent of GNP, or $324 billion. In just three years, we're projected to be paying around $500 billion, or about 6 percent of GNP. Reformers should note: A 3 percent "cap" is still a yearly spending increase of 3 percent.
* Limit welfare benefits to unwed teen-age mothers. Welfare makes it possible for young, unmarried women to have children and set up households as single parents. The welfare rolls increase geometrically each year because many welfare children grow up to do the same thing their mothers did.
Instead of paying money directly to unwed teen-age mothers, the money they would have received through Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps should be given to the states. States could develop programs to assist teen-age mothers, including promoting adoption, orphanages or assisting young mothers in tightly supervised group homes. Since non-welfare families don't receive increased income when they have additional children, neither should women on AFDC and food stamps.
* The law requiring mothers on AFDC to identify the father of their children, routinely ignored by welfare workers, should be enforced. Modern DNA testing permits determination of a child's father beyond a shadow of doubt. Once paternity is determined, fathers should be required to pay child support to offset welfare costs. If a father claimed that he could not pay, the government could require him to perform community service.
* Welfare's marriage penalty should be reduced. When women on welfare marry, their benefits decrease. This discourages marriage and contributes to illegitimacy. A pro-marriage tax credit should be extended to low-income married couples who support dependent children and have at least one parent employed. The tax credit should be worth $1,000; families paying less than that amount in federal taxes in any particular year should be able to receive the remainder via a check from the government.
* A serious workfare program should be established. Previous welfare "reforms," including President Clinton's recent proposal, have talked about workfare without requiring many people to work. Work requirements should be imposed first on able-bodied, non-elderly, single people on welfare, followed by fathers in two-parent families and absent fathers who fail to pay child support. Half of all single mothers on AFDC (those with school-age children) and everyone on food stamps should have to work for their benefits.
* As part of a broader effort to promote cultural renewal, we should adopt a school voucher program. With that in mind, members of Congress must recognize three rules for escaping poverty in America; no one who follows them will be chronically poor: a.) finish high school; b.) Get a job -- any job -- and stick with it; c.) Do not have children outside of marriage. Ample research shows that churches instill the values that encourage these behaviors. Poor parents should be able to take vouchers worth the sum spent on their children in public schools and use them at schools of their choice, including religious schools. If voucher plans were set up in cities, dozens of high-quality, religious schools would spring up, operating as adjuncts of urban churches.
Congress and the president have an opportunity to convert the welfare system from a one-way handout into a system where welfare recipients are given aid and in return are expected to contribute something to society.
Or, they can just keep playing politics.
Robert Rector is senior analyst for family and welfare issues at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington public policy research institute.