America's welfare system is about to make a fundamental shift. Government will continue to provide for people who cannot provide for themselves. But from now on increasing numbers of welfare recipients will have a specific responsibility toward government as well.
They will have to get a job or, through government programs, gain the basic education or training required for employment. As Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, the principal protagonist for change, sees it: Welfare will become a program to provide temporary aid until people are able to gain economic independence.
The current compromise, agreed to by key members of both houses of Congress and White House officials, contains a number of provisions that aim to begin reducing dependency and requiring work. (Reform legislation details, Page 28.)
Many observers consider the compromise measure a good start on welfare reform, although there is disagreement among both liberal and conservative experts. Many of them say the bill would provide too few funds, targets them too broadly, or requires too few recipients to work.
The compromise bill ``won't solve all problems of public assistance,'' says Leslie Lenkowsky, president of the Institute for Educational Affairs and a former Moynihan aide. ``But it is a start in the right direction that is at least 20 years overdue.
``It's toward a program that regards welfare dependence as a transitory condition, not as a permanent way of life. And that seeks to establish policymaking that will enable and encourage welfare recipients to become self-supporting.''
Statistics illustrate part of the reason that members of both political parties were willing to support change in the system. Over the last 15 years the number of people receiving federal funds in the principal welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, has remained relatively unchanged, despite the efforts of often-innovative state programs designed to reduce the rolls. The number has remained between 10 million and a little over 11 million.
Moreover, during those years the amount of money the federal government has been paying welfare recipients has more than doubled, standing at nearly $9 billion a year in 1987. The state share in this joint federal-state program has similarly risen.
Nor is that the end of the story. The most intractable welfare problem, experts say, is a group of welfare recipients that appears to be growing: single teen-agered mothers with children. A new report by the Center for Population Options finds that the United States government spent more than $19 billion in 1987 alone to support welfare families begun when the mother was a teen-ager. The report does not include the value of social services, public housing, child care, or state spending.
The significance of the new compromise measure, says former Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano, ``is that we're nearing a consensus on the fact that to get people off welfare and provide the incentive to work you've got to either educate them ... or put them to work.''
What strikes Mr. Califano and many other welfare observers is how much the climate and culture of the American nation has changed in the 20 years that the welfare reform struggle has been under way. In part, Califano notes, liberal Democrats - who only a decade ago adamantly opposed requiring welfare mothers to work - have moved ``into the middle.''
But the underlying reason that welfare law could now be revamped to require welfare mothers to work, he says, is that ``the culture of the country has changed.'' Twenty years ago most middle-class mothers with young children did not work outside the home. Thus the nation and its politicians were unwilling to require welfare mothers to do what their more affluent sisters did not have to do.
``Now we have a world in which more than half the middle-class mothers in the country have to work. That's accepted. ... And they are saying: `If I have to work,' then welfare mothers should, too.''
By wide agreement, the compromise is a beginning, not an end. It is ``an important opportunity,'' says Judith Gueron, president of the respected Manpower Development Research Corporation, for many states to build on past successes of a few in helping welfare recipients to leave the rolls. The next step, she says, ``is up to the states'' to use the increased federal resources effectively.
Beyond that, Dr. Gueron says, it is important to recognize that welfare reform is ``only part of an antipoverty strategy.'' America should have jobs available for welfare recipients as they are ready to hold them. The nation should ``ensure that those working can make a decent living'' and not remain in poverty despite having pulled themselves out of welfare.
The key elements of welfare reform
The welfare-reform compromise reached by the joint Senate-House conference committee contains these key provisions:
The program would run for five years, at a total cost to the federal government of $3.34 billion.
To prod welfare recipients off the rolls, states would be required to establish minimum enrollment targets for welfare recipients in education, training, work-experience, or job-search programs. By fiscal year 1990 every state would be required to enroll in one of these programs 7 percent of welfare mothers whose youngest child was more than three years old. By fiscal 1995, each state would have to place 20 percent of its welfare mothers in these programs.
To encourage welfare recipients to leave public assistance and take available jobs, they would be eligible for subsidized day care and for medicaid for their family for one year after leaving welfare.
To require absent fathers to be financially responsible for their children, employers would be required to deduct child-support payments from all employed fathers whose children receive welfare.
To discourage family breakup, states would be required to pay welfare benefits to otherwise eligible families whose fathers as well as mothers live at home, about 5 percent of the national total. At present about half the states provide such payments. Those states that do not now provide them would be permitted to pay welfare benefits to the two-parent families for only six months of a year.
One parent in these two-parent welfare families, presumably the father, would be required to perform 16 hours of free community service a week.