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The High Price Of Reforming Welfare

Over the weekend in Little Rock, Ark., President Clinton said "Welfare is no longer an issue that conservatives can condemn liberals over. We have gotten rid of the system people say they don't like."

There you have it. A triumph of Dick Morris-style pragmatic politics. An issue erased, welfare as we have known it gone. And it will take years - certainly until after the election - before defects in the new system of devolution to the states become manifest.

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Deep in the bowels of government, bureaucrats who deal with welfare have been warning an unheeding White House that what we face is an administrative nightmare. Thanks to Robert Pear of The New York Times, some elements of that nightmare are already becoming clear.

Take, for example, the five-year lifetime limit on cash payments to any family, starting next July. To make that work, there must be a record of how much assistance a family has drawn in any state. But that requires a computerized national system to track each family, its employment record, and total money received.

That system doesn't exist, and no one knows when, if ever, it will. Most states do not exchange information, and in some, like California, not even counties do.

Some states are asking the federal government for guidance and technical assistance. But the welfare-reform law forbids federal officials to help in its enforcement, "except where explicitly allowed by Congress."

Those who now want the federal government back were among the most ardent about getting the feds off their backs. Did the administration see these problems coming?

Bureaucrats say there was little discussion of such problems because the White House was not particularly interested in knowing. So now President Clinton says, "This is a great adventure. It may not work, but I thought it was worth the risk." He's paraphrasing Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said in the 1932 campaign: "It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something."

But the welfare bill is not just trying something. It ends President Roosevelt's guarantee of income support to the indigent, with consequences to the poor yet to be determined.

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*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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