Welfare reform opens door for opportunity

President Clinton said Wednesday he plans to sign the first meaningful piece of welfare reform legislation since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s. Clinton’s approval of the bill will affect nearly all of the nation’s 38.4 million welfare and food stamp recipients. The president admits the legislation has major flaws, and he may well suffer a few hits from left-wing supporters who say the bill lacks compassion and all but decimates the federal “safety net.” But we applaud Clinton’s attention to the larger picture. After a drawn-out wait, the welfare system will soon undergo a much needed overhaul.
The bill calls for a lifetime five-year limit on welfare benefits for families and individuals and fixed block grants to states in place of federally guaranteed matching funds. In addition, it forces heads of families to find work within two years or risk losing benefits. The bill will also deny assistance to most legal immigrants and cut food stamp benefits across the board. Mothers on welfare will also be expected to identify the father of their child or see their benefits cut by at least 25 percent. In general, the federal government will take more of a hands-off approach to welfare funds distribution, choosing instead to monitor states’ progress in instituting and enforcing their own welfare reform procedures.
These are ideas that have been a part of welfare reform discourse for decades, but for various reasons — foremost among them a curious, but firm, devotion to the status quo — they have never garnered widespread support. It’s clear, however, that the outgoing system has run its course.
And timing is everything for the incumbent president, who is strengthening his political fortress on a variety of fronts. He leads Republican candidate Bob Dole by 27 percent in some polls. We expect that number to drop significantly after the Republican convention later this month, but Clinton’s knack for latching on to Republican-sponsored legislation and concepts will likely earn him another stint in the White House.
Although Clinton attempted to soothe the concerns of the bill’s strident opponents by promising to work for revisions in the legislation, most of his previous requests for changes to the bill were toned down or disregarded altogether by the Republican leadership. So what we see is what we’re likely to get: A new national policy that will lose much of its patience for the welfare state and encourage those on the take to work their way off federal and state assistance. The change is difficult, of course, but necessary.
Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and civil rights leader, believes otherwise. He has called the legislation “mean” and “low-down,” asking, “What does it profit a great nation to conquer the world, only to lose its soul?” But we would remind Lewis that welfare should be a last resort, not a first choice. For too long, the system has catered to too many people who believe the latter.
When Clinton signs the welfare reform legislation, which is expected in the next several days, it will signify a defining point in his presidency. But regardless of how Clinton can be defined — a Democrat, new or old — we expect he will be remembered for presiding over this long-awaited marriage of compassion and common sense.