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WELFARE REFORMS CAN WAIT BUT NOT THE BELT-TIGHTENING

SHARE WELFARE REFORMS CAN WAIT BUT NOT THE BELT-TIGHTENING

Long before President Clinton formally unveiled his welfare reform plan this week, its main points had been leaked to the public. Consequently, there's little to be said about the proposal that hasn't already been said many times before.

Though the $9.3 billion package wouldn't cost as much and, consequently, wouldn't accomplish as much as had been promised, that's because it would not rely on a tax increase. What a relief. If there's anything the economy does not need now, it is another big tax hike to sap the strength of its recovery.Though the Clinton plan tilts away from jobs by providing $7 billion for training and day care but only $1.2 billion for work programs, some such tilt seems unavoidable as long as the economy is better at creating high technology jobs than those for unskilled or low-skilled workers.

Likewise, though Congress is so preoccupied with health care that it can't be expected to deal with welfare reform for a year or so, some delay can be beneficial as long as it doesn't become chronic. Several states are experimenting with a variety of new welfare plans and a delay could give Congress time to learn from those innovations.

But one big part of the Clinton package that need not be delayed is the economizing that would pay for it. Among other savings, the White House welfare reform would:

- Tighten Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamp sponsorship and eligibility rules for non-citizens. Sponsors of illegal aliens would bear greater responsibility for immigrants, saving an estimated $3.7 billion over five years.

- Cap each state's spending in the AFDC Emergency Assistance Program, which helps the homeless. The White House says states are using the funds for longer-term needs rather than for true emergencies. The savings would come to $1.6 billion.

- Limit Social Security eligibility for drug and alcohol addicted recipients, at a savings of $800 million.

- End subsidies for farmers with more than $100,000 in non-farm income, saving $500 million.

- Income-test meal reimbursements to family day-care homes to improve targeting of subsidies, saving $500 million.

- Extend fees for customs services and railroad safety inspections, saving $200 million.

- Deny the earned-income tax credit, aimed at the working poor, to non-resident aliens, saving $300 million.

- Eliminate fraud and reduce the welfare case load, saving $1.5 billion.

The case for making such savings immediately, rather than tying them to welfare reforms which may or may not be enacted, should be beyond dispute. A record 5 million families are on welfare now, a staggering 34 percent increase since 1989. Moreover, spending on various federal entitlement programs plus interest on the national debt now eat up more than 60 percent of all federal spending, double the percentage of 25 years ago. If left unchecked, such "mandatory" spending is projected to exceed 70 percent of all federal expenditures by the year 2003. Without tax increases or reduced growth in benefits, the major entitlement programs are projected to consume all federal revenues in 30 years.

Whatever else can be said for or against the Clinton welfare reforms, the plans for financing them make it impossible for Washington to keep claiming it can do no more belt-tightening. Let's do it now. The longer Washington waits to economize, the more painful the task will be.