Clinton Beats Drum on Youth and Family Issues
In a series of election-year moves designed to put Republicans on the defensive and promote himself as a decisive leader on family issues, President Clinton announced executive decisions this month that aim to keep teenage welfare recipients in school, get youths to quit smoking, and encourage adoption.
Mr. Clinton declared in his weekly radio address on May 4 that he would compel states to withhold welfare benefits from teenage parents who fail to finish high school and do not live with a parent or other responsible adult. The move has implications for the upcoming congressional debate on welfare reform.
He also encouraged states to offer bonuses to teen mothers who stay in school by removing the requirement that states seek federal approval for such policies. The president's executive action, which alters a Department of Health and Human Services policy, also compels states to have unmarried minors on welfare sign a "personal responsibility plan," in which they promise to finish school and attend parenting classes. The policy change is effective immediately.
"Today I am acting to help teen mothers break free from the cycle of dependency for good," the president said in his radio address. "The only way for teen mothers to escape the welfare trap is to live at home, stay in school, and get the education they need to get a good job," he said.
Mr. Clinton's actions came days after a new study found that an Ohio program that offers financial bonuses and penalties to teenagers on welfare was largely successful in persuading those young people to stay in school, secure employment, and shun public assistance. (See Education Week, May 8, 1996.) However, a separate study found that Wisconsin's Learnfare program, which penalizes welfare families if their teenage children do not attend school, had little impact.
Several Republican leaders said the president's actions would have little practical effect. Twenty-six states already had received federal waivers allowing them to mandate that teenage parents live at home in order to receive welfare payments.
Republican leaders contended that true welfare reform can be nothing less than a dismantling of the current federal system and a transfer of control to the states.
"Why should the nation's governors have to go to Washington, get down on bended knee, and plead for waivers," Gov. John Engler of Michigan, the chairman of the Republican Governors' Association, said in a statement. "We can't reform welfare and break the cycle of poverty one waiver at a time."
President Clinton argued, however, that his administration has effectively been overhauling the system over the past three years by granting 37 waivers to states to pursue their own welfare-reform plans.
"State by state, we are building a welfare system that demands work, requires responsibility, and protects our children," he said.
The debate comes as Republican leaders--especially Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee--are deciding how they will handle the issue of welfare reform in the months leading up to the November elections.
They are split over whether they should try to draft a bill the president will sign and claim victory for pushing through welfare reform, or serve up another bill unacceptable to Mr. Clinton, forcing a veto and allowing Republicans to portray the president as obstructionist.
Mr. Clinton has vowed to veto any welfare bill that does not protect children and families. He has already vetoed two Republican welfare-reform bills this year.
Republican leaders in the House expect to introduce a revamped welfare plan by the end of the month that incorporates some of the proposals advanced by the National Governors' Association. (See Education Week, March 20, 1996.)
"This is a president who promised the American people to end welfare as we know it, and he will soon have another chance to see if he can reform the system," said Lauren Sims, a spokeswoman for Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
President Clinton raised another contentious, values-laden issue last week when he took another stab at the tobacco industry, calling on advertisers to end cigarette campaigns that appeal to children.
In a May 7 speech to young people participating in "Kick Butts Day"--a national anti-smoking rally--Mr. Clinton reiterated his plan to reduce smoking by children and adolescents.
The Food and Drug Administration is considering controversial changes in the rules regulating vending machines, mail-order tobacco sales, and certain promotional activities. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)
Also last week, President Clinton embraced a Republican bill that would make it easier for families to adopt children. The unusual display of bipartisan cooperation was characterized by political observers as another effort to steal Republicans' thunder on a "family values" issue.
The measure would remove some bureaucratic restrictions that slow down the adoption process, including rules hindering interracial adoptions. The bill would also provide a $5,000 tax credit for many families who hope to adopt a child. The average cost of adopting a child in the United States is approximately $20,000.