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Ire Over Welfare Now Focuses On the System

Reforms will cost more than the present plan

WHEN pollsters working for the Reagan campaign in 1980 were probing public opinion on welfare, they found a well of resentment toward people living on the public dole. President Reagan himself painted images of ``welfare queens'' getting rich by abusing the system.

Now one of those pollsters, working the same issue 14 years later, finds that people are still angry about welfare. But the target has changed.

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``In 1980, the target was the welfare recipient. Today, it's the system that abused the individual,'' says Vince Breglio, who has been polling and running focus-group discussions on the issue.

President Clinton's vow to ``end welfare as we know it'' is among a handful of priority agenda items for the coming year. Many conservative Democrats and Republicans in Congress are keen that the White House keep welfare reform on the front burner.

``We want to make sure it is a top priority in this next year,'' says Rep. Jim Slattery (D) of Kansas, chairman of a task force on welfare reform put together by the Mainstream Caucus, a conservative Democratic group of members of Congress. ``We don't want to lose'' in all the attention lavished on health-care reform.

More-liberal Democrats are concerned that in the heat of battle, welfare families will lose benefits without gaining any meaningful boost toward employment.

On the surface, the broad principles of welfare reform are widely shared across political philosophies.

People see a system that kicks men out of the house, bans saving, and sustains generations of dependency. ``They think that welfare rewards what life punishes, and it shouldn't,'' Mr. Breglio says. ``They want it scrapped.''

But the pollster did not hear what he expected to hear from Americans when they considered Mr. Clinton's general proposal to limit welfare to two years.

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People of all incomes and races tend to think that welfare recipients should do something, like work or community service, after a period on welfare. But they do not want to cut off support to people who cannot find work.

The basic battle over welfare reform, once it is engaged, will be over how much pressure to exert on recipients to leave the welfare rolls after two years and how much assistance they will get in training, education, and even subsidized wages.

Other key questions will be how far to go in pursuing fathers of welfare babies for child support and cutting support for pregnant teens. The welfare bill by House Republicans, for example, requires unmarried teenage mothers to live at home with their parents if they collect Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

The White House has not yet proposed any details of what it will require of welfare recipients or how it will move people into work. But one of the ironies of time-limiting welfare is that it will cost more than the current system of writing checks indefinitely.

Challenge: finding jobs

For the system to work, it means moving at least 1 million to 1.5 million people from welfare into jobs in an economy that already has more than 8 million unemployed. Many of the welfare recipients, moreover, will be among the least prepared people in the economy to work.

About 5 million households are living on the major welfare programs - AFDC, food stamps, and Medicaid - at any given time. Roughly half of those have been or will be on welfare for more than two years. Of those, judging by the standards of existing state workfare programs, about half will be exempt from work requirements because of age, disability, or preschool-age children.

These numbers can change dramatically according to how a new welfare law sets eligibility standards.

The cost of training and education to prepare people for work before their two years are up, based on state experience, is about $2,000 a year, according to Mark Greenberg, senior attorney at the Center for Law and Social Policy. If a welfare client then goes to work in a community-service job, child-care expenses run about $3,000 a year and administrative costs about $2,000 a year.

Cost estimates vary

The most conservative possible estimate of the added cost of supporting a two-year limit, Mr. Greenberg says, is $3 billion to $4.5 billion a year. The House Republican bill, based on estimates done by the Congressional Budget Office, would add $12 billion a year, which the bill makes up for in stricter child-support enforcement and other savings.

If the administration supports wages to make sure that work pays at least at the minimum-wage level, then subsidies could be involved too.

Most welfare reformers hope to save money over the long haul by changing behavior and cutting the number of long-term welfare-dependent people. Studies of the small-scale programs at the state and local levels have yet to show any of them cutting welfare costs, however.

Overall, Breglio says, ``People want a system that makes sense.''

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