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Reform With Heart

YOUR time is up. Enroll in a work-training program or you're on your own.

That's the stern messag

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e welfare recipients will receive if an ambitious plan to place two-year limits on welfare benefits eventually becomes policy. The draft proposal, drawn up by a presidential task force, would require recipients to enroll in a work program after two years on welfare or face financial penalties.

To help dependent families make the transition, the plan will significantly expand child care, work, and training programs. It will also offer subsidies to employers for hiring welfare recipients. Questions about how much the program will cost and how many jobs will be created remain unresolved. At its best, this attempt to end the current welfare system has the potential to make recipients self-sufficient. At its worst, it would throw already vulnerable families deeper into debt and despair.

Most Americans agree that the welfare system must be transformed. More than 5 million families - some 14 million people - now receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) at a cost of more than $22 billion a year. Equally staggering are the incalculable emotional costs paid in lives diminished and families weakened by dependency and poverty.

Efforts to reduce both price tags deserve support. But putting a time limit on payments fails to take into account a sluggish economy. When even educated, productive workers sometimes still find themselves unemployed after two years despite their best efforts, what are the realistic prospects for those with little education and minimal skills? The unemployment figures for November, released on Friday by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, show promising growth in the hiring of white-collar employees, but the hiring of blue-collar workers and those with limited skills remains relatively stagnant.

Those trying to make the transition from welfare will generally need not just a job, but child care, too, and likely will need help with transportation and housing.

Punitive policies that fail to include a regard for individual cases will have costly consequences. Already there are signs of a national hardness of heart toward the homeless and the poor. Conservative author Charles Murray, an ardent foe of welfare, goes so far as to prescribe an end to all economic support for single mothers: no AFDC, no subsidized housing, no food stamps.

Whatever mistakes welfare recipients have made in their lives, it is incumbent upon lawmakers not to compound those problems. Architects of welfare reform must acknowledge that the most important job for some welfare mothers is to stay home with young children. Planners also must not underestimate the patient, sustained help many recipients will require to make a full shift from welfare check to paychecks.

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As the draft plan makes its way to Mr. Clinton's desk, the message to the president and his task force must be clear: Proceed with caution - and compassion.

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