Welfare Bill's Chief Sponsor Halves Its Cost To Get Support

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WASHINGTON--Hard-pressed by concerns over the federal budget deficit, the chairman of a key House subcommittee has sharply reduced the cost of proposed welfare-reform legislation that would direct more money to adult and remedial education.

In an effort to overcome the opposition of budget-conscious conservatives, Representative Harold Ford, the Tennessee Democrat who is chairman of the Ways and Means panel on income support, has cut the measure's five-year price tag by more than half, from $11.8 billion to $5.2 billion.

While the revised bill contains less-generous increases in some areas--such as federally subsidized child care--most of the savings would be achieved by postponing, rather than eliminating, new services.

Mr. Ford is seeking major revisions in the largest federal welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Under his so-called NETWORK program, states would be required to offer a wide range of education, training, and child-care services to welfare clients as part of a coordinated effort to help long-term recipients find jobs.

Emphasis on Education

The bill places particular emphasis on education, and would offer additional funding for states to expand programs serving illiterate adults, high-school dropouts, and those who do not speak English.

But the cost of Mr. Ford's original proposal considerably exceeded the welfare-reform spending target agreed on by the House Democratic leadership and included in the budget resolution approved by the House this month.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office pegged the cost of the original Ford bill at about $12 billion over five years. The Reagan Administration, however, contended that the plan would cost more than $21 billion by 1993.

The revised legislation, endorsed by the welfare subcommittee two weeks ago, reduces the federal share of NETWORK costs from 75 percent to 60 percent. According to subcommittee staff members, the reduction would save about $1.3 billion over five years.

Mr. Ford's proposed federal matching rate falls about halfway between the 70 percent to 80 percent match called for by the nation's governors and the 50 percent rate proposed by the Administration for its own, more limited welfare-reform program.

Setback for Advocates

In a major setback for child-welfare advocates, Mr. Ford more than halved the amount of money set aside in the bill to pay child-care expenses for single parents enrolled in the NETWORK program. The new plan lowers the federal matching rate for the benefit from 75 percent to 55 percent, and shortens from one year to six months a proposed transition period during which former welfare recipients could continue to qualify for the subsidy.

Despite these and other reductions, Republican members of the subcommittee said they would continue to oppose Mr. Ford's legislation, while attempting to win support for their own plan.

"This is not a reform measure, this is a massive benefit increase,'' said Representative Hank Brown of Colorado, the ranking Republican on the welfare panel.

Although Mr. Brown said he would continue to seek a bipartisan compromise, he and two other Republicans on the subcommittee have drafted their own bill, which would set aside a much smaller amount of money for education and training.

The Administration, too, remains firmly opposed to Mr. Ford's bill, citing both its price tag and what one Administration spokesman called "matters of principle.''

Topping the list of ideological issues raised by Mr. Ford's plan is the chairman's insistence on a new minimum national benefit level for all welfare recipients, which would be set at 15 percent of each state's median family income.

Administration officials and other critics regard this as an improper intrusion into state affairs.

Even groups that strongly support Mr. Ford's NETWORK plan have expressed doubts about the benefit provisions of his bill.

"We have a number of strong reservations about the benefit language,'' said Rae Bond, a spokesman for the National Governors' Association, which has suggested postponing the establishment of a national benefit standard until it can be financed with the savings expected to be generated by the education and training efforts.

But other organizations active in the welfare-reform debate are more favorable toward Mr. Ford's plan.

"We are certainly sensitive to national and state budget constraints,'' said Kathleen Patterson, a spokesman for the American Public Welfare Association, which represents state human-service officials.

"But we think it is important that the structure for the benefit improvements be put inplace now.''

Within the next few weeks, the Senate should begin work on its own welfare-reform legislation. Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, Democrat of New York and a recognized expert on the issue, is expected to introduce a bill similar to Mr. Ford's proposal, although it is not clear if Mr. Moynihan will also seek to force the states to increase benefits.

Even if the House and the Senate are able to agree on a bill that is also acceptable to President Reagan--an outcome that observers say is far from certain--many education representatives are uncertain what role the education community will play in the reform effort.

Any increase in federal funding, one education lobbyist pointed out, would almost certainly be channeled through state welfare agencies, raising questions about how much of the money would be made available for public-school programs.

Jeff Simering, a Washington lobbyist for the Chicago Board of Education, cited the response to the 1982 Job Training Partnership Act, which made large amounts of federal money available for vocational instruction.

Public schools, he contended, have largely been "pushed out'' of the program by the state training agencies that control and administer J.T.P.A. funding.

"I'm afraid we are going to see the same sort of problems with welfare reform,'' he predicted.

"I think most of the money will stay in the welfare bureaucracy.''

But social-service officials insist that they are ready and willing to work with educators to develop plans for sharing resources and complying with any new federal mandates.

"We will have to do this in a cross-cutting fashion,'' Ms. Patterson of the public-welfare association said.

Members of her organization are "committed to working with their counterparts in the education community,'' she added.

Vol. 06, Issue 31

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