IN THE MOST PROFOUND decision of his White House tenure, President Clinton will sign a welfare reform measure that largely reflects the highly conservative cast of the Republican-controlled Congress. It positions him to be a centrist "New Democrat" ready to break from his party's New Deal heritage and eager to junk a system that "traps too many people in a cycle of dependence."
Politics motivated and intruded on every aspect of Mr. Clinton's decision. It left Republican challenger Robert J. Dole sputtering about an "election-year conversion" and caused exultation among House Republicans who consider their version of welfare reform the crown jewel of their "Contract with America." The imperative of incumbency prevailed.
While the legislation fulfills Mr. Clinton's 1992 pledge "to end welfare as we know it," it represents a national leap into the unknown. Liberal Democrats talk of millions made destitute and children denied basic sustenance. Mr. Clinton himself cited flaws in the bill, especially in its cuts in nutritional assistance and its assault on legal immigrants who pay taxes and serve in the military yet will be denied any welfare aid if they lose jobs or get sick. The sooner the president speeds up citizenship-granting procedures, the better.
But for all its drawbacks, indeed for all its inherent cruelties, welfare reform is a cause whose time has come. Once a program to give the poor a temporary helping hand, the system has become a way of life in urban ghettos and rural hollows. Welfare checks are too often more lucrative than minimum-wage jobs.
The foremost change will end welfare as an "entitlement" providing cash assistance on an open-ended basis. Most heads of families will now have to do community service after two months and get a job within two years, or face a cut-off in aid. In addition, there will be a five-year lifetime cap on welfare benefits. States will inherit vast powers from a downsizing federal government -- a step that could lead to promising innovation or "a race to the bottom" by governors eager to send poor people elsewhere.
In opting for so fundamental a realignment of the contract between a government and its citizens, Mr. Clinton and the Republican Congress made a political deal for which they will be held accountable. It required ruthlessness as well as a conviction that something had to be done for social as well as economic reasons. Everyone is entitled to misgivings, but in the end this was the decision that had to be made.
Pub Date: 8/01/96