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The Welfare Tango

Presdent Clinton has gained a reputation, fair or not, for being on both sides of a lot of issues. His varying stances on welfare reform haven't helped much.

As a newly elected president, Clinton said he wanted to "end welfare as we know it." Then he proceeded to focus on health-care reform instead. Last fall he said he would sign a welfare-reform bill that passed the Senate with a large number of Democratic votes; then he vetoed the final version. During the budget battle, he again vetoed welfare reform as part of a larger budget measure he didn't like.

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The Republican approach, pushed by Sen. Bob Dole, Congress, and governors alike, is to end the federal welfare guarantee and turn the program over to the states to design their own programs, supported by federal block grants. Mr. Dole this week proposed allowing states to test welfare recipients for drug use. Clinton objects that the GOP proposal fails to protect children and doesn't keep minimum federal standards.

Meanwhile, the president has approached reform piecemeal. He has granted 38 states waivers of federal requirements so they can structure their own programs (although he has insisted on certain measures for children.) The White House defends this reform-by-waiver approach, noting that welfare rolls nationwide have diminished by more than 1 million since Clinton took office.

Republicans were irritated when the president not only granted a waiver to, but publicly endorsed Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson's radical welfare proposal, which goes far beyond Clinton's. The GOP governor's reforms contain the strictest work requirements yet for people on welfare, requiring every adult recipient to find work immediately. The state would provide community-service jobs to those who can find no private-sector employment. The proposal also eliminates Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

The GOP accused the president of playing politics with the issue, noting that Dole was scheduled to speak on welfare in Wisconsin Tuesday. The White House staff bolstered that view when it later backtracked from the president's endorsement, saying some of the Wisconsin provisions were still negotiable. The president says he will sign a bill that requires welfare recipients to work, limits the time people can stay on welfare, toughens child-support enforcement, and protects children.

In our view, state governments are generally better able to design and administer programs like welfare and Medicaid. Ending the federal program does not have to mean ending aid to children. Governors have consciences, too.

A compromise ought to be possible, however, that ends federal control (the GOP's main goal) and yet insists on a few basic requirements - minimum aid to children, for example - in spending block-grant money (Clinton's objective). These requirements could be designed in such a way as to leave states with enough flexibility to come up with their own answers and revise them if they don't work.

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