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Clinton Shifts Welfare Reform Into Gear

While White House develops its plan, the president encourages states to experiment with ways to get people off public assistance

MAJOR welfare reform is on the move, or is it on the remove? The trial balloons for change coming rapidly now from the Clinton administration, from states, and from Congress and social-policy groups all have one objective: To help remove people from bulging welfare rolls.

The Clinton White House, true to campaign promises to establish time limits for welfare, recently gave Wisconsin the go-ahead to experiment with limits. Starting in January 1995, welfare parents in the state will get cash benefits for only two years and be required to work. After that, recipients are not eligible for cash benefits for 36 months, but can continue to receive food stamps and medical assistance.

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In making the announcement, the White House emphasized that the Wisconsin plan was an ``experiment,'' perhaps the first among a handful for states, to test programs against practice.

Should it succeed not just in reducing the number of welfare recipients, but in keeping them from returning, then the program could change welfare radically because of the precedent of demanding more of recipients.

Approximately 5 million families received some kind of welfare in 1992, up from about 3.7 million in 1989. Last year, an estimated $210 billion was spent by federal and state governments on all public-assistance programs. Most welfare recipients are women with children. Welfare rolls are soaring

The rolls are soaring for three main reasons: the recession; a sharp increase in the number of single, unemployed women with children; and an increase in working families whose earnings are below the poverty level.

President Clinton said repeatedly during his presidential campaign that he would take steps to ``end welfare as we know it.'' A comprehensive White House welfare plan is being shaped now, but no release date has been set. Likely to be part of this plan, in addition to limits, are a call for more vigorously collecting child support payments, broadening the earned-income tax credit to put more cash in the hands of poor people with low-paying jobs, and offering more education and job training.

While Clinton aides study the issue, House Republicans have jumped in with a plan of their own. The GOP plan would cut off all cash grants to welfare recipients after three years. If welfare recipients don't get a private-sector job after two years of training, they would be forced to take a community-service job or one subsidized by the government.

But, ultimately, whatever happens at the federal level may be less important than state action.

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``Clinton has been a fan of thinking that good ideas come from the state level,'' says Judith Gueron, president of Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation in New York. ``He was part of the process in the 1980s when state innovations became the catalyst for national action. We don't really have one welfare program; we have 50 programs.'' Obstacles to overcome

But both state and federal welfare reforms face formidable obstacles. David Ellwood, an assistant secretary at the United States Department of Health and Human Services, says the problem ``doesn't seem to be so much getting someone off welfare for the first time, the problem is making it stick.'' Studies indicate that 70 percent of people who leave welfare return.

Another major obstacle is the sheer number of welfare recipients - many with radically different backgrounds.

``The welfare population is so diverse, no single program is going to address many needs,'' says Michael Warner, a New York State welfare administrator. ``Some people have never had to handle the 9 to 5 workplace and are close to being dysfunctional, and many others want to go to work tomorrow.''

Other experts warn that, contrary to public expectations, any solution to the ``welfare problem'' will wind up costing more than the current system - at least in the short term.

``The public tends to think that welfare reform is synonymous with saving money,'' Ms. Gueron says. ``But if Clinton says we're going to get tougher [on recipients], and you have to work for your benefits, this is going to cost. We have to pay for supervisors, administrators,'' and job creation.

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