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Kids become pawns in the candidates' chess game

BOSTON — BOSTON -- At first glance it looks as if they are growing up.

The candidates have gone from kissing babies to playing politics with children. The problem is that the game they're playing is called "One-Upmanship."

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On Saturday, the president endorsed a social experiment in Wisconsin, saying it had "the makings of a solid, bold welfare-reform plan" and that "we should get it done."

It was a move that political savants described as somewhere between clever and downright brilliant.

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Non-senator sputtering

He'd dunnit again. Mr. Clinton had co-opted another Republican plan and executed a pre-emptive strike against Bob Dole.

The new non-senator was left sputtering something about "petty theft."

Then Tuesday, Mr. Dole arrived in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, for his welfare speech-op. He attacked the president for "calculated cynicism," echoed him on pursuing statutory rapists, and tried to top him by saying states should be allowed to test welfare moms for drugs.

All this maneuvering makes politics a great spectator sport. But between Mr. Clinton's haste to co-opt the common ground and Mr. Dole's desire to stake out differences by sounding tough, we're drifting into risky territory.

Nod of approval

Consider the Wisconsin plan that both men have given a nod of approval.

The man of the bipartisan hour, Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, pushed all the right buttons in creating "Wisconsin Works." There's a rock-bottom consensus in this country, echoed in a recent study done by the Public Agenda Foundation, that the current welfare system "encourages people to adopt the wrong lifestyle and values" and that the "centerpiece of welfare reform should be work."

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Wisconsin Works, or W-2, replaces welfare with a jobs program that would put about 53,000 mothers in private or in taxpayer-subsidized jobs. It has a time limit of two consecutive years, or five years over the course of a mother's lifetime. And it offers child care, health care and other benefits.

In short, W-2 is an attempt to use the carrot and the stick. For those who won't work, no check. For those who do, a helping hand.

Lurking devil

But the devil of these reforms lurks -- as he often does -- in the details. The details in this case could leave "participants" -- that neutral word for mothers and children -- worse off.

Detail One: When Governor Thompson signed W-2, he called it "Independence Day for families on welfare." But independence can mean that you're self-sufficient or cut adrift. Welfare was a guaranteed safety net; W-2 would be subject to the same budget constraints -- and cuts -- as any other state program.

Detail Two: The mothers who will work at state-supported jobs will be paid a $550 monthly stipend. That's sub-minimum wage. And they won't be entitled to an Earned Income Tax Credit.

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Detail Three: W-2 has subsidies for health care and child care. But it will require participants to pay a portion for themselves and each child. There is also a built-in financial incentive to put the most vulnerable kids in the cheapest child care. Even then, co-payments can seriously cut into income.

Detail Four: The program stipulates that a mother must go to work when her baby is 12 weeks old (!). That means that her child must be in full-day infant care. See Detail Three.

Details, details. They raise the same question that's been echoing uneasily throughout the welfare-reform debate: What will happen to the children?

What will happen if the mother can't or won't work? What will happen if the Wisconsin economy takes a dive, if there are fewer private jobs and less state money for public jobs? What will happen if infants and children end up in rotten day care?

Are we so focused on the disasters of the current welfare program that we have overlooked the possibility that we can make things even worse?

Greatest shame?

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On Tuesday, Senator Dole said welfare was liberalism's "greatest shame." Anyone want to see welfare "reform's" greatest shame?

This isn't a plea to retain "welfare as we know it." But we ought to read the fine print before we buy changes as radical as those in Wisconsin. Instead we're hearing campaign slogans.

Welfare reform is about as serious as public policy-making gets. It is determining the future for the youngest and poorest Americans.

Yet the issue is frozen in Congress for the duration of the campaign, while Messrs. Clinton and Dole each claim to be the tough and compassionate reformer in a game of "Can You Top This?"

Somebody ought to tell them: This is not child's play.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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Pub Date: 5/24/96


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