Welfare Reformers: Stand and Deliver: Attention Turns to Best Ways to Provide Services

Article excerpt

Welfare reform has passed Congress and President Clinton has promised to sign it into law, but already the next battle is beginning - over who can deliver welfare services.

While Democrats favor tax credits for higher education, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole supports a tax credit for charitable gifts. His wife, Elizabeth, has said her goal as first lady would be to encourage all Americans to donate at least 1 percent of their incomes to a good cause.

At issue is the decades-old system in which professional nonprofit groups and some religious charities have received millions of dollars in government funding for services to the poor.

Groups that are deemed overly religious or that fail strict rules about staff credentials, program content or building standards are ineligible for government funding.

Republican leaders are trying to change that system, pointing to the successes of faith-based groups in helping troubled people improve their lives.

These reformers have won their first beachhead: The welfare reform bill Mr. Clinton has said he would sign invites states to use openly religious groups to serve the poor.

The welfare bill sets up protections for groups and recipients but tells states they can no longer reject a prospective provider just because it is faith-based.

This is the kind of shift many GOP leaders say they want to see.

"We're trying something new," said Sen. Daniel R. Coats, Indiana Republican. With Rep. John R. Kasich, Ohio Republican, Mr. Coats has introduced a package of 16 bills designed to "shift power, money and influence" from Washington to families, grass-roots groups, and private and religious charities.

Their efforts are buttressed by another bill, introduced by GOP Reps. James M. Talent of Missouri and J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, that would:

* Designate 100 communities to receive tax breaks and other kinds of financial "renewal."

* Establish educational-choice scholarship programs for poor families in renewal communities.

* Allow taxpayers to get tax credits (up to $200 for individuals, $400 for couples) if they give to charities that serve the poor.

* Allow faith-based groups to provide drug-treatment and counseling services.

The Talent-Watts bill was hailed by nearly 100 grass-roots groups at a July hearing held by two House subcommittees.

This bill is important, said Robert L. Woodson Sr., president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, "because it holds the promise of rescuing the poor from the suffocating grip of their saviors of the past 30 years."

These Republicans face formidable opposition from national coalitions of service providers and educational leaders who say that the proposed changes are unwise, reckless and unconstitutional.

More than 60 opposing groups, representing union workers, educational leaders, religious charities and professional social-service groups, rejected the Talent-Watts bill at the same hearing.

The Talent-Watts proposals "would come at a high price - the mandatory acceptance of the bill's radical policy agenda," Daniel E. …