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Welfare's Overhaul

WHAT began as a pledge to ``end welfare as we know it,'' in President Clinton's phrase, unfortunately may turn out to be more like ``tweaking welfare as we know it'' when his proposal finally winds up on Capitol Hill.

While welfare is a hot-button issue, it is less clear that voters are willing to pay to fix the system. Meanwhile, conservatives are offering sometimes draconian counterproposals that include eliminating benefits for unwed mothers and, at their most extreme, ending welfare entirely. Unfortunately, such notions assume a level of family structure and support among the indigent that the current welfare system is rightly accused of undercutting. Part of the strategy is to try to recapture the issue for Republicans. Yet such approaches also suggest an Adamic tendency to point the finger at woman as the main cause of the welfare problem.

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As it evolved, the White House plan contained a great deal of common sense. To break the cycle of dependence on welfare, it set a time limit for benefits. To ensure recipients get a fighting chance when benefits end, it provided job training. To ensure children's well-being while mothers are in the program, it provided for child care. To overcome prospective employers' understandable reluctance to hire people with little education or work experience, it subsidized the wages for a period. And perhaps most important, to reinforce the family, it restructured benefits to encourage both parents, but particularly fathers, to remain in the household.

But concerns about financing reportedly have cut what was shaping up as a $15.5 billion, five-year program to $9.5 billion over the same period. The largest casualties were child care and assistance for two-parent families.

Mr. Clinton's refusal to tax gambling to the tune of $3.1 billion a year to help pay for the program was correct; to pay for welfare reform - itself a signal of how deeply a society feels about its disadvantaged - through what in effect is an entertainment tax lends an air of frivolity to the exercise and masks its importance to society as a whole. But he should have looked for alternative revenue, not reduced the proposal. We hope those provisions are restored before the program is unveiled.

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