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"WORK IS THE MEANING of what this country is all about. We need it as individuals. We need to sense it in our fellow citizens, and we need it as a society and as a people." -- Robert Kennedy

With those words, President Bill Clinton on August 22 made good his 1992 promise to "end welfare as we know it," an idea that found widespread resonance with Americans. In 1992, the nation's out-of-wedlock birthrate was 30 percent and climbing -- up from 5 percent in 1960, and federal expenditures on AFDC, America's primary cash welfare program stood at $22.3 billion -- 91 percent more than in 1970.

The measure Clinton signed was largely the work of congressional Republicans, and the president had vetoed two previous welfare reforms, on grounds they were too harsh. In the end, Republicans dropped a key priority to allow states to administer Medicaid and succeeded in pushing through a tough bill that terminated the 61-year-old open-ended federal guarantee of aid to mothers and their children.

In its place is a new system of block grants that allow each of the 50 states to design and put in place their own version of welfare. And, federal aid comes with strings attached: welfare recipients must find work within two years, and there is a five-year lifetime limit on receiving aid. The plan is expected to save some $54.1 billion over six years, reductions achieved by reductions in the food stamp program, and by denying social services to legal immigrants.

By signing the GOP bill, the president not only kept a campaign pledge but robbed GOP nominee Bob Dole of a key wedge issue. He could only say (improbably) that, "The first 100 days of the Dole administration have begun 97 days before the election."

Liberals are not amused. Many, including such notables as New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo have openly condemned the bill (if not the man who signed it) as likely to put millions on the street. The left-leaning Urban Institute estimates 33 percent of those hitting time limits won't find work. Most liberals say they support welfare reform, but generally favor strong support systems -- health care, job training, child care -- to help people make the transition into the work force and self sufficiency.

Far from being a dead issue, welfare reform will remain an important issue for politicians in both parties. Though Republicans scored an important and potentially longlasting victory in sending welfare to the states, as piecemeal reform efforts get underway, federal lawmakers will continue to debate the federal role. In general, Democrats can be counted on to argue for more federal guarantees that people won't suffer; Republicans to argue for Uncle Sam to get out of the way so that state and local solutions can be given a try.

The president himself calls the new law flawed and promises to "fix" it later, putting back guarantees of aid to children even if their parents exceed the five-year cap. Clinton has spoken frequently of Americans' "moral obligation to make sure the people who are being required to work have the opportunity to work." He has proposed tax incentives to businesses to hire welfare recipients, and in a second term he'd be likely to try to push to extend aid to the children of recipients who have exhausted their time limits.

Republicans oppose that as a way around time limits. But they too would like to provide tax incentives for job creation in the inner cities. If the GOP holds onto control of Congress, and especially if Dole wins, Republicans can be expected to push for more devolving of social programs to the states including Medicaid, public housing, foster care, adoption programs, school meals, and nutritional assistance to pregnant women and their children.

R E L A T E D  S T O R I E S

  • Ripping Up Welfare With not a little drama, Clinton grudgingly approves the G.O.P. bill, and the U.S. starts a vast and risky experiment. By George J. Church, TIME, Aug. 12, 1996

  • Working Out Welfare Clinton is getting cornered on a reform bill. But would proposed changes really undo the system? By Jodie Allen, TIME, July 29, 1996

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