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Clinton Signs Welfare Reform, Turns Programs Over to States

By Barbara Vobejda
The Washington Post
Washington

President Clinton signed historic welfare legislation Thursday that rewrites six decades of social policy, ending the federal guarantee of cash assistance to the poor and turning welfare programs over to the states.

"Today, we are ending welfare as we know it," Clinton said at a White House ceremony, where he was flanked by three former welfare recipients. "But I hope this day will be remembered not for what it ended, but for what it began."

Clinton's endorsement of the bill, which requires recipients to work and limits benefits to five years, fulfills a 1992 campaign promise that came to symbolize his image as a centrist Democrat. But Thursday, as the bill passed its final hurdle, there seemed to be less an atmosphere of celebration than a cloud of controversy hanging over the Rose Garden.

Gone were the Marine Band and Democratic congressional leaders who had attended bill-signing ceremonies earlier this week for bills increasing the minimum wage and making health insurance more accessible. Republicans, who had prodded Clinton for months to sign a welfare bill, refused to give him credit. And the divisions among Democrats over the legislation were readily apparent.

Even as Clinton signed the measure, women's groups and advocates for the poor protested along Pennsylvania Avenue, vowing to carry their dispute to the Democratic convention in Chicago next week.

Whatever divisiveness it has inspired, the bill's enactment is likely to be remembered as a defining moment for Clinton, who vetoed two previous versions and battled with himself over whether to reject this measure as well.

Thursday, he labeled the measure "far from perfect," criticizing provisions that reduce spending on food stamps and deny aid to many legal immigrants. But he offered an explanation why he was signing it. "We can change what is wrong," Clinton said. "We should not have passed this historic opportunity to do what is right."

And he suggested that his decision to accept the bill should remove welfare from the political arena. "The two parties cannot attack each other over it. Politicians cannot attack poor people over it. This is not the end of welfare reform, this is the beginning. And we have to all assume responsibility."

The president challenged Americans to join together to make the legislation work, to end the denigration of the poor, to offer jobs to welfare recipients and reflect on ways to make the new welfare system better.

Sharing the stage with Clinton was Lillie Harden, a 42-year-old mother of three from Little Rock, Ark. Harden received welfare for two years before finding work and is now employed at a supermarket. Clinton said his thinking on welfare has been influenced by Harden, whom he met a decade ago at a governors' panel on welfare reform. He said when he asked her what was the best thing about being off welfare, she answered, "When my boy goes to school and they say what does your mama do for a living, he can give an answer."

"I have never forgotten that," Clinton said.

In a statement, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole praised the bill and said it would be remembered as a Republican victory. "My only regret today is that President Clinton did not join with us sooner in helping end a welfare system that has failed the taxpayers and those it was designed to serve," Dole said. "After two vetoes of similar welfare reform bills, President Clinton knew he couldn't afford a third strike."

The bill ends the long-standing cash-assistance known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, abolishing an entitlement created 61 years ago that guarantees that any eligible poor person can receive aid.

States will establish their own assistance programs, funded by an annual federal payment instead of the open-ended stream of federal funds they have received in the past. States can determine who is eligible and for how long, although federal funds may not be used to provide benefits for more than five years over a lifetime.

Under the measure, states are required to move half of adults on welfare into jobs by 2002. The bill also creates a comprehensive child support collection system, requires unmarried teen parents on welfare to live at home and stay in school and provide $4 billion more in child care funding than is currently available for welfare parents required to work.