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Liberal Boston takes hawkish line on welfare

The very word `welfare' has been dropped in favour of `transitional assistance'
From "hang-em-high" Texas, or from disillusioned and angry California, it might have been expected - but not from Massachusetts, that bastion of New England liberalism and enlightenment. None the less, the state in the forefront of the original American Revolution is leading another one - by setting up the toughest welfare system in the country.

This month a jubilant Republican Governor, William Weld, signed into law a welfare system that slashes benefits, halts payments after two years and insists that most recipients either find a job or perform community service after 60 days. Many states have adopted one or other of these provisions: Massachusetts is the first to enact all three.

The state may have bucked a national trend last November by re-electing the arch-liberal Edward Kennedy to the Senate. But Mr Weld secured his welfare bill with the connivance, indeed the backing, of the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature which could have imposed a less stringent measure, safe in the knowledge it had the two thirds majority to override a governor's veto.

That this did not happen is proof of the public pressure across the country for sweeping welfare reform, a central promise of the Republicans' Contract with America.

The very word will be struck from the vocabulary of government. The state's Department of Welfare will become the Department of Transitional Assistance. That revamped assistance involves a 3 per cent across the board cut in the basic Aid for Families with Dependent Children programme, an end to the $90-a-month extra payment per new child born to mothers on welfare, the requirement that teenage mothers live at home or in a group home, or lose their welfare benefits, and various other penalties.

For Betsy Wright, director of the non-profit Massachusetts Human Services Coalition which struggles to improve the lot of the poor, the measure is "a disaster of which the legislature should be ashamed" - the "mandating of impossible behaviour" upon society's most disadvantaged.

Fearful of the popular mood, and procedurally outmanoeuvred by Mr Weld, the state's lawmakers went along. And the Governor has good reason to be delighted. Mr Weld does not conceal his presidential ambitions. If he runs in 1996, the reputation of being a welfare hawk is a vital credential for one whose pro-choice, pro-gay rights views leave him dangerously exposed on the libertarian left of the Republican party.

Technically, the Weld reforms still require federal approval by 1 July, but that is considered a foregone conclusion, so strongly is the anti- welfare bandwagon rolling. "Democrats call Republicans too lenient on welfare," declared the New York Times, in what must be a strong entrant for the Improbable Headline of the Year award.

The pressure for action on welfare looks irresistible. Nothing dovetails quite as perfectly with the national priorities as enunciated by Speaker Newt Gingrich and the radio talk show hosts, of a balanced budget, rediscovery of discipline, hard work and family values, and the devolution of power from Washington to the states.

No matter that the United States spends just $60bn (£39bn) on welfare, and that to eliminate it entirely, obviously a non-starter, would still leave the budget deficit at $140bn. No matter too that the low-wage jobs people are supposed to move to simply do not exist: otherwise, Betsy Wright and others ask, why do 60 per cent of recipients stay in welfare rolls for more than two years?

Even in rich and previously generous Massachusetts, the $10,000 a year received in benefits and food stamps by a typical welfare family of an unmarried mother under 30 with two children (more likely to be white than black), is 35 per cent below the state's official poverty line.

Congress is bound to approve some version of reform. President Bill Clinton, who campaigned in 1992 vowing to "end welfare as we know it", may resist some extreme Republican notions, such as the proposed withdrawal of welfare benefits from legal, as well as illegal, immigrants. But he will have little choice but to sign a bill reducing existing benefits.

Almost certainly, this will embrace block grants, lump annual sums made over by Washington to individual states for them to spend as they wish. In the process, welfare would cease to be the entitlement it has been since 1935, whereby anyone who meets certain qualifications is automatically eligible. Either it will operate on a first-come, first-served basis until the money runs out. Or conditions will be set which disbar many of those least able to help themselves. But that is what Massachusetts seems to be doing now, and what the US is poised to do.