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Governors Tout State Welfare Reforms

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Washington

Federal welfare reform should build on what states are doing and allow them to continue in their role as "laboratories for change,'' several of the nation's governors said last week.

At a National Governors' Association meeting here, Gov. John Engler of Michigan, the co-chairman of the group's welfare-reform leadership task force, said the states' progress "can be accelerated'' if the federal government allows them the "flexibility and tools'' they need to pursue reforms.

The Senate minority leader, Bob Dole of Kansas, said in an address to the governors that states are moving so rapidly on revamping welfare that the climate for reform "may well have already changed'' by the time the Clinton Administration and Congress take up the issue.

This is an area in which "the governors and state legislatures are light-years ahead of the federal bureaucracy,'' he said, adding that Congress's top priority should be to "stay out of your way.''

The most significant policy action at the meeting was a bipartisan proposal on health-care reform that could serve as a framework for compromise between the White House and Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress.

But the governors also took time to compare notes on welfare reform and to urge that whatever steps the federal government takes reflect and encourage experimentation.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, noted at the meeting that the Family Support Act of 1988, Congress's last major welfare overhaul, "could never have happened'' if states had not started to explore ways to reinforce the mutual responsibilities of society and recipients to end welfare dependency.

The law has yielded "small'' successes, he said, but has been stymied by recession, inadequate federal funding, and "resistance'' from traditional welfare offices.

New Waiver for Oklahoma

President Clinton also argued in an address to the group that state spending on welfare reform has been limited by an explosion in Medicaid costs, which was one of the reasons he cited for why health and welfare reforms must be "inextricably linked.''

He stressed the need to address both issues, however, and said he would offer a bill this spring that would limit benefits to two years and require community-service work for those who cannot find jobs.

The plan is also expected to include incentives, expanded training, and support services to help people move off welfare, as well as tougher child-support enforcement and other measures to promote "parental responsibility.''

The Administration so far has granted federal waivers to nine states to pursue welfare reforms.

Oklahoma, for example, last week got a waiver for a pilot program requiring students and teenage parents to stay in school in order to receive full welfare benefits.

The three-year project, a more modest version of Wisconsin's pioneering Learnfare program, will involve about 3,000 students in an urban and a rural location. It will reduce the benefits of those whose attendance slips below 80 percent after two warnings, while providing support services to help improve attendance.

Governors at last week's meeting described state policy changes including imposing time limits and work requirements, toughening child-support enforcement, allowing families who work to keep and save more of their income, eliminating increases in benefits for mothers on welfare who have additional children, and coordinating services for welfare families.

The N.G.A. last week also called for stronger ties between Head Start and other state and federal programs for at-risk children.

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