PRESIDENT CLINTON claims he wants to "end welfare as we know it." He assures the nation's governors, as he did in Vermont this week, that it is "not for the federal government to tell you how to do welfare reform." He promises to approve within 30 days any sensible state experiment for ending welfare dependency. He boasts that his administration has freed states to turn welfare into work "without being stifled by one-size-fits-all federal rules."
Hot air, all of it.
Never mind what Clinton says about welfare reform. What matters is what he does. And what he is doing is refusing to let the Commonwealth of Massachusetts go forward with the only welfare reform law in America that makes any progress at all toward ending welfare as we know it.
The Massachusetts law -- which passed with overwhelming, bipartisan majorities in both houses of the Legislature and was signed by Gov. William Weld on Feb. 10 -- is straightforward. In a nutshell, it requires any able-bodied welfare recipient whose youngest child is at least 6 years old to work 20 hours per week. A recipient who can't find work on her own is provided with one in a community service agency. There are new incentives to help get people into jobs, welfare recipients no longer get a raise every time they have a baby, and nobody can collect benefits for longer than two years.
That may sound like simple common sense, but it is the farthest any state has gone in trying to stop the spread of welfare's poison. Too far, apparently, for the Clinton administration. For more than 120 days, the US Department of Health and Human Services has refused to give Massachusetts the go-ahead to implement its new law.
It's worth noting how narrow this law actually is. Nearly four-fifths of the 95,000 state residents now on welfare are exempt from the law's work requirement and time limit. Among those exempted are the disabled, anyone caring for a disabled child or spouse, mothers with very young children, women in their third trimester of pregnancy, and teen-agers in school. Draconian it isn't.
Out of touch with mainstream opinion it isn't, either. Welfare is widely detested, and for good reason: above all, because it has failed so grotesquely. Wherever welfare takes root, it spreads poverty, irresponsibility, ignorance and -- worst of all -- illegitimacy. Millions of children are growing up undisciplined and unsocialized, never knowing their fathers, never seeing adults get up and go to work, never experiencing the stability of a home headed by two committed parents, never learning how to one day be good mothers and fathers themselves.
Welfare has entrenched an underclass battered by violence, crime, drugs, and chaos. The War on Poverty has eaten up $5.4 trillion in 30 years, and nearly every problem it was meant to alleviate has grown worse.
But welfare is also detested because it is so unfair. It takes money from people who earned it and gives it to people who didn't. Nothing is expected of the welfare recipient except that she show up to collect her check. Month after month after month, that is exactly what huge numbers of welfare mothers do. More than 65 percent of families now receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children will be receiving it for at least eight years.
To be sure, many people go on welfare reluctantly and get off quickly, ashamed to be taking a handout, just needing a little aid to get through a crisis. They aren't the people who make welfare reform so urgent. The ones who do are the recipients who aren't ashamed at all, the ones who take welfare as their due. Welfare became a disaster when it became an entitlement. The disaster won't end until the entitlement mindset ends.
And there's the nub of the fight between Clinton and Massachusetts. The president won't approve the state's new law because it would force able-bodied adults off welfare after two years even if they haven't gotten a regular job. His health and human services secretary, Donna Shalala, wrote to Weld that "adults who are making a good-faith effort to work should not be penalized." Translation: Recipients should be allowed to collect benefits for as long as they feel they need them.
It is precisely that attitude Massachusetts wants to wipe out. The deadly premise of the welfare state is that recipients stay on the dole until they're ready to go off. The Massachusetts law abolishes that principle and establishes a new one: Welfare shall be temporary.
"Two years is a reasonable time for people to get on their feet," says Joseph Gallant, the Massachusetts welfare commissioner. "The only way to keep people from getting trapped on welfare is to tell them up front when it's going to run out.
"That's not penalizing them. It's treating them like you would treat anybody else. It's saying: You can get your life together. We'll help you out for two years while you do it. But you've got to do it."
Gallant's view is the humane one, the one that can start the slow turning back of the terrible welfare tide, the one that can begin to end welfare as we know it. But Clinton's fine words are just so much hot air. And so Massachusetts waits, and waits, to carry out its new law.