The focus on the Republican battle over the abortion plank in
the 1996 platform has obscured the fact that President Bill
Clinton's decision to sign the Republican welfare reform bill has
set the stage for what is likely to be an even more divisive
struggle inside the Democratic Party over the next four years.
If the plan works as its designers hope in moving people from
welfare to work, Clinton will be hailed along with such Republican
sponsors as Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Reps. Clay Shaw of
Florida and Mike Castle of Delaware. These are decent people who
have no wish to inflict hardship on welfare mothers or their
children, let alone exploit the ill-disguised racism that lurks
behind much of the welfare issue demagoguery. Appalled as virtually
all Americans are by the human and financial cost of welfare
dependency, they are looking for that elusive fix.
But the step they have taken in ending the 60-year-old federal
guarantee of minimal financial support for needy parents and
children is fraught with peril. There is enormous uncertainty
whether state-run programs, partly funded by limited federal block
grants, will in fact induce people to leave welfare and find jobs
or whether they will collapse when the first downturn in the
economy swells the unemployment rolls.
The best evidence from experimental welfare-to-work programs -
as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., a lifelong student of
poverty problems, repeatedly has pointed out - is that they reduce
the numbers needing assistance only marginally, and only if more
money is invested in job training, counseling, child care and
transportation subsidies at the start.
The bill the Republicans wrote and Clinton agreed to sign calls
for less federal spending and demands greater results - something
that is possible in the real world only if states and localities
vastly increase the human and dollar resources they commit to the
effort. And that is both a fiscal and a political improbability.
Whether the effort succeeds or fails, Clinton will go down in
history as the man who made a historic break with the tradition and
the core of his Democratic Party. Already, it is clear that he has
driven a wedge down the center of the party and caused a split that
is likely to echo in the primaries of the year 2000 - and beyond.
Even knowing that Republican votes would send the bill to
Clinton's desk and that he had decided to sign it, exactly half the
Democrats in the House and 21 of the 46 voting on it in the Senate
voted no, because they could not stomach what the president