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Clinton Preps For Welfare Reform, Act 2

Long before the ink was dry on welfare reform - even before he actually signed it - President Clinton talked about "fixing" it.

The provision that denies benefits to most legal immigrants disturbs him. So do reductions in the food-stamp program, especially for the working poor. And interest groups are taking him at his word. In what is usually a quiet period here - the post-election, holiday-season policy hibernation - welfare and immigration activists are jockeying behind the scenes to soften the new law.

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But how much can the reform be reformed?

The two pieces that Mr. Clinton finds objectionable represent the biggest areas of savings: Over the next six years, the changes in the food-stamp program would save more than $23 billion, and cutbacks for legal immigrants would save almost $24 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

But for Clinton to restore any of that money, he would have to find equivalent savings elsewhere in the budget.

"There's not much Clinton can do without money," says Demetra Nightingale, a welfare analyst at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.

Increasingly, Democrats agree with Republicans on the importance of a balanced budget. And with the Republicans maintaining control of both houses of Congress, there may not be much room for maneuver in efforts to revise the reform, which eliminates the 61-year-old federal guarantee of assistance to the poor.

BUT administration officials highlight several ways that changes can be made to improve the law. First will be a legislative package - a project still in its infancy - that seeks directly to soften some aspects of the law.

"[Clinton] believes we can identify savings within the federal budget, so that we don't have to unfairly deny benefits to legal-immigrant families who work and pay taxes and fall upon hard times," says Michael Kharfen, a spokesman at the US Department of Health and Human Services.

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Second, officials note a new emphasis on job creation for welfare recipients. After signing the welfare bill, Clinton proposed a $3.4 billion plan to offer tax breaks and subsidies to businesses that hire people off the welfare rolls.

Some welfare analysts, however, say existing programs that operate on this model have not proved very successful. Often, businesses get credits for hiring people they would have hired anyway. There's debate within the Clinton administration, too, over whether businesses may let workers go so they can hire welfare recipients to get the credits and subsidies.

There's also debate over how many of the new jobs needed to reduce welfare rolls should be provided by the government itself. When Clinton first proposed "ending welfare as we know it," he assumed the government would end up providing some of the jobs for people who couldn't find work in the private sector. Politically, that has become a tougher proposition.

Third on the administration's list of "fixes" is to redirect existing job-training programs more toward welfare recipients. This idea has the merit of not costing extra money. For the nation's governors, who are central to making welfare reform work, job-training is a crucial element. The law provides no new money for job training.

"We have a lot of existing programs that are out there that don't work very well. We need to have that fixed," Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) said at a Monitor breakfast this week.

On the immigrant provisions, the Clinton administration has directed the Justice Department to accelerate efforts to naturalize legal aliens who have been in the country a long time but who have not become citizens. The administration has also beefed up efforts to get families to take financial responsibility for the immigrants they have sponsored.

In addition, the president has told the Agriculture Department (which runs the food-stamp program) and the Social Security Administration to take the maximum time allowable in determining which immigrants will no longer qualify for benefits.

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