THE FEDERAL WELFARE reform bill that President Bill Clinton signed into law last summer has been described as a wholesale reordering of national priorities.
Some call it a bold political stroke; others consider it a complete capitulation. Most agree it secured the right to genuine experimentation by states.
But as contentious as it was, the federal legislation had the qualities of what economists call a trailing indicator: It was more a reflection of what had been happening than what was going to happen. States have been experimenting with welfare reform since 1989, when Ohio got a waiver that allowed it to deny benefits to teen mothers who did not go to school. Oregon applied for waivers at the same time to require recipients to work for their benefits. By the time Clinton signed the landmark legislation in August, 44 states - including Missouri and Illinois - had waivers from federal officials to operate their welfare systems in some altered form, often requiring recipients to work or be in school to receive benefits. Much of the reform took place by governors' executive orders or through budgeting decisions. Michigan, for example, began to encourage families to stay together by raising the eligibility income level for married couples. Oregon required welfare recipients to attend job-training classes, and then paid their benefits as a wage check. True Experimentation After welfare reform became a winning political issue in 1992, when candidate Clinton promised the "end welfare as we know it," many state legislatures passed their own versions of welfare reform. Missouri is one of only three states that have yet to implement a legislatively sanctioned welfare reform package, which allows states to deal more creatively with reforming welfare. Across the country, the law has led to true varied experimentation. For example, Michigan is raising the amount of assets a family can have while on welfare from $1,000 to $3,000, before they are no longer eligible for welfare benefits. "We think that it is better to let people build up a little nest egg so that when they are no longer in the system and run into a little trouble, they don't come right back to us," said Margarete Gravina of the Michigan Family Independence Agency. Michigan has also changed its work requirements for women with babies. "You were exempt from those rules if you had a child under 12 months. …