Rational welfare reform


WHAT IS "rational" anyway? Well, several weeks ago around 8 a.m. anyone driving or walking along Baltimore Street, between Howard and Park, probably saw a naked man rather casually taking a stroll. He wasn't all nude. He wore a knit cap. That he didn't have anything else on, though, I believe constitutes irrational behavior. And not just because it was cold.

Rational behavior would be to wear clothes while walking downtown. Similarly, rational behavior requires Congress to take the stripped version of welfare it passed as reform during its last session and add some essential elements that will keep it from becoming an embarrassment when its already obvious inadequacies become even more pronounced.

But rational obviously isn't what Congress wants to be about welfare. Some Republicans are taking blood oaths not to change even the most unfair aspects of this welfare reform, including excessive cuts in the food-stamp program and ending benefits to legal immigrants who have paid taxes and served in the military.

Senate majority whip Don Nickles, R-Okla., says Congress will be "very cool" toward any welfare changes. House Ways and Means chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, says only technical changes will be made, if any.

President Clinton is sending signals that say he may push for another welfare bill (most likely additional tax breaks for businesses that give jobs to former welfare recipients), but he isn't going to let another welfare-reform battle define his second term.

In his speech Wednesday to the Democratic Leadership Council, Mr. Clinton talked about bipartisanship and ending "the politics of personal destruction and division." But the apparent context had more to do with expected fights with Congress over a balanced budget and campaign-finance reform, not welfare.

Some needed reforms

Welfare, as we know it and as it is about to be, needs further correction. That is not to say some reforms occurring now aren't needed, if only to change this nation's mind-set toward helping the poor. Fewer people will be eligible for government aid and fewer will consider it natural to go on welfare rather than look for a job.

But there aren't going to be enough jobs that most of the poor can qualify for to go around.

Job training that is mostly aimed at teaching a person how to comply with orders from a boss or why it is important to show up for work on time every day isn't going to provide participants much in terms of marketable skills.

The jobs you can get after participating in that type of "job training" aren't going to take you out of poverty if you have a family, especially after you eventually become ineligible for subsidies that helped with child-care, medical and transportation costs.

And the likelihood of climbing the ladder to a position that pays better wages is remote. As Sun reporter Kathy Lally pointed out in a December 1 article, one study shows women who leave welfare for work make only about $1 more an hour after six years on the job.

That makes me think the aim of welfare reform is not to get people out of poverty, it's to get them out of the house. Fine. Work is good. There is nothing wrong with expecting people to labor for the money they receive. I sure do.

But a rational nation would take the next step. It would make sure there is no limit to how long a poor family can get help getting back and forth to a job, that subsidized or free child care is always available when a family needs it, and that no one ever has to question whether she should buy food or pay for medical care.

Those things would be costly, but worth it, if we don't want to slide back to welfare as it was.

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/14/96

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