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Move on Welfare Reform

President Clinton's pledge to end "welfare as we know it" was honored nine months ago. Or was it?

The president famously (many Democrats say infamously) ended 61 years of federal welfare last August. He did so by signing into law GOP-authored legislation turning over to the 50 states the task of moving people off welfare to work. Then Mr. Clinton quickly pledged that, if reelected, he would reform the reform - making it more lenient.

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That turned out to be impossible legislatively. Voters, after all, had handed the GOP control of Congress. So the White House has gone to bat administratively to help Democratic legislatures resist Republican governors' reform plans in the biggest welfare states.

Result: The clock is ticking and the reform program hasn't started rolling in California, New York, and Texas.

The Texas case is instructive. The Clinton administration has blocked a program proposed by GOP Governor George Bush that would use private firms to run welfare, Medicaid, and food stamp programs. Bush officials claim that Mr. Clinton is paying his debt to labor unions, including public employee unions, for massive support in the 1996 election campaign.

Powerful Texans in Congress are putting pressure on the White House to back off. Clinton aides hint at a compromise allowing a small pilot program to "test" the Bush plan for privatized services to the poor.

No such compromise is needed. The whole idea of turning welfare over to the states in the first place was to allow each state to create, in essence, a test program. That way the nation's lawmakers would see which solutions worked best for different local and regional circumstances.

So, let Texas go ahead with its test program, and we'll see whether it works well or not.

It's understandable, but disturbing, to find unions trying to curtail this national reform effort aimed at teaching welfare recipients how to find and hold jobs. In New York last year, union officials spoke out against plans to put welfare recipients to work on municipal projects. Their fear was lower-wage competition for union jobs. In Texas the concern is that private workers would replace state employees who hand out welfare pay and check recipients' eligibility.

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The measuring stick in Texas (and other states) should be: Who is best qualified (1) to help the poor learn job skills and (2) to disburse checks, food stamps, and Medicaid benefits? Quite a bit of on-scene research indicates that civil servants long accustomed to eligibility questioning and check issuance have not easily adapted to job training and support roles.

Union worries about job competition from welfare trainees merit sympathy. But local governments (and businesses) are not likely to cast aside large numbers of experienced workers for lower cost but unproven new hires. What's more likely is selective hiring of welfare alums to fill vacancies.

Organized labor cannot say it backs the dignity of workers around the world while blocking the flow of jobs to people willing to work hard to better themselves. This applies to anyone trying to move off welfare, just as it applies to legal immigrants and to workers in third world factories.

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