Bold Clinton tackles welfare

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The Independent Online
TAKING the initiative on an issue that in past campaigns has been a Democratic tender spot, Governor Bill Clinton has promised to revolutionise welfare support so that it offers recipients a 'second chance, not a way of life'.

His plan, featured in 30-second TV advertising spots being shown this week, pledges to inject new discipline into the welfare system, notably by setting a two-year limit on assistance to single-mother families, one of the most expensive welfare items.

In the advertisement, Mr Clinton says the proposals will 'end welfare as we know it'.

The strategy aims to neutralise traditional Republican claims that the Democrats stand for open-chequebook support and welfare dependency.

Mr Clinton also needs to maintain his appeal to white, blue-collar Democrats who in recent elections have defected, in part because of the welfare issue. The TV spots are being screened primarily in the Deep South to target those voters.

Although likely to be popular with most whites, Mr Clinton's proposals risk angering blacks, for whom any rhetoric on curbing welfare assistance is taken as coded racism. Making a bogy of the welfare system has been a core theme of such right-wing campaigners as David Duke and Patrick Buchanan.

Recent attempts by Mr Clinton to shore up black support, notably with a speech to the national Baptists convention in Atlanta on Wednesday, have been overshadowed by his continuing semi-public feud with the civil rights leader, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was appointed by the Democratic Party this week to lead a voter registration drive in the black community.

Mr Clinton's plan would specifically oblige single mothers on welfare support, many of whom are black, to return to work after two years, in either the private or public sectors, or to enter community service.

There would also be a crackdown on separated fathers to force them to pay child support.

In return, a Clinton administration would quadruple federal funding for job training for welfare recipients and transport subsidies, and substantially increase tax deductions for the poorest actually in work, to bring as many as possible above the official poverty threshold.

The extra money needed, Mr Clinton says, would be found from cuts in defence and other government commitments - the same source cited for most of his other proposed programmes.

Although the plan lacks some detail, on funding especially, it has won initial praise from non-governmental groups. A spokeswoman for the Urban Institute, a largely black think-tank in Washington, welcomed the proposals, saying they 'address the problems head on, in a way that is consistent with the best current thinking on the welfare system'.

The proposals have additional credibility since they are based on policies already practised for several years by Mr Clinton in his home state, Arkansas. In his TV advertisement he claims, with good cause, that welfare reforms in Arkansas took 17,000 people off welfare in three years. While overall numbers on welfare in the state grew by 12 per cent in the same period since mid-1989, that increase is less than half the national average of 27 per cent.

Although he has taken on the task of increasing the black turn-out in the poll, Jesse Jackson has complained publicly of a 'push-off' by the Clinton campaign against him and the black community. The Baptist convention was the first time he and Mr Clinton had met since the Democratic convention. Throughout Mr Clinton's speech, Mr Jackson looked visibly irritated and bored and he barely joined in the applause. However, the two are to meet formally today to discuss strategy towards black voters.

(Photograph omitted)