States urged to take welfare lead. Report recommends some five years of US-approved pilot programs at the local level to see what reforms might work
It is questionable whether the White House welfare proposal, released over the weekend, goes far enough toward immediate reform to satisfy the predominantly Democratic Congress that will convene in January. For months both liberals and conservatives had been anticipating that the new Congress might finally make the major changes in a troubled core welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which have only been talked about for two decades.
The report, however, suggests a quite different tack. It recommends that states and communities be allowed to make experimental changes in many federal social programs that aid the poor. This proposal among others should please Congress.
Welfare experts agree that over the past five years the most interesting experiments in welfare reform, such as ``workfare,'' have come from those states that are experimenting with changes in the AFDC program.
Early next year liberals in Congress are likely to seek to take advantage of the current liberal-conservative consensus and push for immediate change in AFDC by requiring that welfare recipients participate in some form of workfare, and that absent fathers be required to contribute to the support of their children.
The White House plan, drawn up by a panel led by presidential assistant Charles Hobbs, takes a more inclusive approach. It groups some 59 federal programs that together, it says, constitute welfare. These programs should be considered as a system, not dealt with individually, the panel says.
The report recommends that President Reagan ask Congress to permit states and local communities to conduct demonstration projects for perhaps five years, provided that an as-yet-unformed federal office approved the states' plans. The federal government, Mr. Hobbs says, would provide as much money for the new programs as it would have without reform.
The demonstration projects would be required to meet broad federal goals. At the conclusion of the five years, the federal government would examine the results of the demonstrations to see whether what the states had learned should be translated into major changes in federal programs.
Gilbert Y. Steiner of the liberal Brookings Institution says that he personally ``would be quite comfortable'' with the Hobbs approach of continued experimentation, tied to an approval process. He says the Hobbs report is ``playing it very intelligently to say that the most sensible things we have done in years have been experimenting [with welfare reform] to see whether it makes a difference. The evidence is far from all in. The states are anxious to continue experimentation.''
Mr. Steiner sees in the report the seeds of a possible Congress-White House compromise on welfare reform this year: Congress would approve the concept of increased state experimentation, provided the White House agrees to require all states to provide welfare benefits to otherwise-eligible families in which fathers live in the home, a controversial proposal intended to keep families together.
Stuart Butler of the conservative Heritage Foundation calls the Hobbs proposals ``extremely good.'' He says the report has made ``a major contribution to the discussion of welfare'' by saying flatly that ``a centralized management system [such as that of the federal government] cannot deal with the problem of welfare.''
He notes that the report would establish both a national set of goals for welfare programs and also, by providing state and community experimentation, provide ``the benefit of localism and experimentation.''
Mr. Butler, author of a forthcoming book on welfare reform, says he sees the Hobbs proposal as a natural evolution in welfare history.
Before Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, states were innovative but without federal standards, and if they lacked funds or the will to help the poor ``nothing happened.''
Under President Johnson America went to the other extreme, centralized planning from Washington which proved ``extremely ineffective. Now we're getting to a third approach'' - broad national goals, plus state experimentation.