Before heading off to Chicago for the Democratic Convention this summer, President Clinton had to decide whether to sign the welfare reform legislation sent to him by Congress. In the end, the President chose to support a block grant approach to welfare reform and sign the bill, thereby allowing state governments to create a multitude of possible approaches to helping people in poverty. This was a wise and compassionate decision, for a number of reasons.

First of all, nobody really knows what the best approach is, and it may be that what works in Arkansas won’t work in California. To continue the current system, which is dominated by inflexible federal law and rule-making, makes no sense in an environment where success will be a function of getting away from traditional solutions. Now we have an opportunity to try at least 50 proposals, probably more, and the outcomes can be analyzed and incorporated into further reforms down the road.

Secondly, states (and counties) are much closer to the problem, and must deal with the consequences of their actions. Washington is so far removed from the actual impact of its policy-making that states have been ahead of the federal government on the reform agenda in a number of areas for almost a decade. Welfare reform, like Medicaid reform and a host of other initiatives, started in the states.

Third, the federal government is hardly walking away from financing public assistance for poor women and children. Most states will initially receive more federal funds under the block grants than they would have under the traditional structure. In particular, Massachusetts will receive an initial increase of almost $100 million in fiscal year 1997. Cuts in federal support for legal immigrants and food stamps make up the lion’s share of what reductions are now called for, and these proposals will probably be revisited before they take effect. High-growth states will also be eligible for upward adjustments in funding if they meet certain performance standards. If states take advantage of their newfound flexibility and budget prudently, the funding level proposed under this reform should be adequate. If the federal government re-thinks its policies on food stamps and legal immigrants, the funding level will be more than adequate.

Fourth, the cornerstone of the federal reform plan is work. Work must be the cornerstone of welfare reform, and this proposal puts real pressure on the states to deliver. People who focus on the side issues surrounding this reform plan miss the big picture. Welfare reform, more than anything else, has to be about people getting up in the morning and learning to cope with the day-to-day issues that affect every other working family. Without it, welfare reform will not be supported by the public, and, more important, it will fail the recipient population it is designed to help.

Finally, to pass the buck again and do nothing, despite the obvious failure of the status quo, would have been a tragedy. People who say the new proposal will throw children into poverty need to take a look out the window. The current system has ravaged children for years, decimated families, and turned healthy, productive value systems inside out. It is probably the single biggest public policy failure of the second half of the 20th century, and radical reform was way overdue.

Some opponents argue the reform plan is worse than current policy because it will create a “race to the bottom” among states as they scramble to avoid an influx of poor people by reducing benefits. This presumes that states don’t offer different benefit levels to poverty populations under the current system (they do), and that poor people migrate from one state to another in search of higher benefits (they don’t). The real competition among states will be in the development of innovative programs that reduce illegitimacy, maximize child support and increase work participation. Success in these areas will not only generate public support, it also generates additional federal funding.

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Instead of complaining about the fact that the federal government will no longer be responsible for every facet of every welfare program, a set-up that has worked badly for years and is structured directly against the advice of every policy and management theorist, critics should rejoice in the federal government’s willingness to give states a chance to try a wide range of plans to deal with the most pressing social policy problem of our time. Foundations, universities and the federal government are all planning to spend millions of dollars studying state efforts under this proposal, and will keep the body politic educated and informed. Undoubtedly, some plans will succeed and some will fail, but hopefully, the policies and programs that succeed will be duplicated, and the failures will be quickly discarded.

Is success under reform anything close to a sure thing? No, not yet. On the other hand, the only sure thing in this arena is that continuing to do what we’ve been doing dooms another generation of children and families to a lifetime of poverty, neglect and violence. There can be no doubt about that.

Charles D. Baker is Secretary of Administration and Finance in the Weld administration and served as Secretary of Health and Human Services from 1992-1994.