Clinton aims to slash welfare

US workfare plan: President approves radical Wisconsin scheme to cut payments to jobless
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The Independent Online
In a move which could bring closer sweeping reform of the federal welfare system, President Clinton has publicly endorsed a radical "workfare" plan approved by the state of Wisconsin that would scrap the existing system entirely and require every recipient to take a job, subsidised or otherwise.

Wisconsin, a traditionally progressive northern state, has long been in the vanguard of welfare reform. With Washington's approval, 38 of the 50 states are now experimenting. The latest scheme however, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said, was "the most revolutionary of all", placing a limit of five years on the time anyone can receive welfare, and guaranteeing in effect that a person who cannot find a job in the private sector will be given one by the state.

On no issue - crime, education, not even health care - are Americans more convinced that reform is essential than welfare, which featured large in the 1994 "Contract with America" that helped the Republicans win back control of Congress.

Naturally, in an election year, Mr Clinton's offer was laced with politics. By no coincidence he chose to make it three days before Bob Dole, his presumptive Republican opponent, travels to Wisconsin to make a major speech on welfare, which is certain to berate the President's failure to deliver on his highly effective 1992 campaign pledge to "end welfare as we know it".

But once again, in his shift to the centre ground on a variety of social issues, Mr Clinton has neatly stolen Republican clothes, pre-empting Mr Dole on a theme his challenger was banking on to erode the President's forbidding lead in the polls - no less than 22 percentage points according to a Time/CNN poll this weekend.

Adding to Republican irritation, the scheme on which the White House is lavishing such praise was devised by Wisconsin's Republican Governor, Tommy Thompson, who happens to feature high on Mr Dole's list of possible Vice-Presidential running mates. Predictably furious Dole supporters were yesterday accusing Mr Clinton of "cynical deception".

Be that as it may, the President's gambit leaves Congress and the White House with less reason than ever not to come up with a bipartisan deal on welfare reform at a federal level, instead of the piecemeal state-by- state change currently taking place.

For 18 months, they have fenced over the issue as the Republican Congress has passed two reform bills - the first of them with substantial Democratic support - with the aim of cutting welfare spending by $60bn over seven years, paring back benefits and handing money previously disbursed by Congress directly to individual states as block grants.

Both measures however were vetoed by Mr Clinton, on the grounds they did not offer adequate child and health-care guarantees for recipients, a large proportion of whom are single mothers living in depressed inner- city neighbourhoods. But, he said in his weekly radio address on Saturday, the Wisconsin scheme did offer these guarantees, it was a "bold, solid reform plan". If Congress sent him a bipartisan plan, "I'll sign it right away".

The measure approved by the Wisconsin state legislature still requires a "waiver" from the Clinton administration before it can take effect. Essentially however, it does away with the $25bn Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) programme, the centrepiece of US welfare since its introduction in 1935 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Instead, anyone who seeks to go on welfare would have four choices. He could take a normal unsubsidised job (provided one was available), or failing that a "trial job" partly subsidised by the state. If that was not possible, the welfare recipient could enrol for community service, to acquire the skills to find a job in the private sector. The fourth option is "transitional work" for people with limited capabilities.

He or she would be eligible for a "job access loan", similar to student loans, to help pay college fees, that would be repaid later either in cash or by voluntary work. Paradoxically, the Wisconsin scheme would not save money, at least at first. Any cuts in benefits would be outweighed by the cost of extra child care to permit a welfare recipient to hold down a job.