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Welfare reform's costs

Gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush is proposing a welfare reform program he calls the Phoenix Project. Project Cold Turkey might be a better name, since it calls for throwing women off welfare after two years whether or not they can find jobs.

That's not an original thought. Other politicians are beating the same drum, if not so ferociously, and the state, with Washington's blessing, is about to test the idea on welfare clients in Alachua and Escambia counties. One of the questions the pilot project should answer is how much it would cost the state to care for the children whose mothers get kicked off the rolls. No one, not even Bush, thinks the kids should be tossed out in the street, too.

Bush, in fact, would take them away from their feckless parents and care for them at state expense.

"An abusively neglectful birth family is not better than an adoptive family, a foster family or even an orphanage," he says, "and it's time for the state to recognize and act on this fact for the sake of the children. To this end, a streamlined judicial procedure for involuntary termination of parental rights after adequate due process may be necessary for these cases of neglect."

This is a stunningly aggressive proposal that may not play well with Bush's conservative constituency. The notion of the state breaking up a family doesn't square with most definitions of family values. It also might puzzle them that a politician who's willing to go that far would begrudge the $37-million that the present governor wants to spend to keep some kids at school after school so that they won't be out on the streets.

But, to a point, Bush may be right. Parents who simply refuse to work _ of whom there are probably far fewer than he seems to think _ have no call on society's conscience. Their children do.

The problem with his scheme, as he conceded in a telephone conversation Wednesday, is that "there's no way to know" how much it would cost to save the children. That would not be a criticism if it weren't for the fact that Bush is also saying that he cannot only build 50,000 more prison beds without new taxes, but that he can reform welfare too. What's more, he proposes to give up $483-million a year in federal aid to families with dependent children (AFDC) because of the restrictions that come with it. Instead of Phoenixes _ or turkeys _ perhaps we should be talking about something else that flies: the Tooth Fairy. When I asked Bush what he'd do if the children's costs turned out to be greater than the savings he expects from other parts of his plan, he dismissed the question as hypothetical. He would not let the word "taxes" cross his lips.

It's far from hypothetical. Bush proposes to create a Child Care Trust Fund with Medicaid money saved by forcing all Medicaid clients into managed care health plans. It's the same pot of savings Gov. Lawton Chiles wants to use to subsidize health insurance for working families whose employers don't now offer it. But Bush may have overlooked one not-so-minor detail here _ the possibility that to withdraw from the federal AFDC program could cost Florida the $850-million a year that Washington contributes toward Medicaid for AFDC clients. The programs are directly keyed to each other. Ed Crayton, a Medicaid specialist in Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration, tells me Florida would lose the federal money "unless they change the laws or we get a waiver." And without that $850-million, not even the Tooth Fairy could make Bush's books balance.

In his position paper, Bush also dumps on the Chiles plan as "health care welfare" and says flatly: "No one in Florida today goes without necessary medical services for lack of money." When I challenged this, by reminding Bush of Josephine Alvarado of Homestead, his fellow Dade County resident who, being uninsured, vainly sought treatment for breast cancer before dying of it six years ago, he replied: "If you're dealing with this in terms of that exactitude, maybe you're correct." His solution: Federal tax credits for health insurance.

Bush's proposal is, of course, a campaign document to be taken as such.

Florida TaxWatch Inc., which is highly respected for its diligently independent, nonpartisan agenda, happened to issue its own report on welfare last week. Like Bush, it condemned the fact that, over a four-year test period, less than 45 percent of AFDC families were able to go off the rolls permanently. For the rest, it said, AFDC "has become a lifestyle . . . instead of the safety net that it is intended to be."

But TaxWatch also pointed out that a mother would have to earn $8.33 an hour _ nearly $16,000 a year _ to make up for the AFDC, food stamp, child care, Medicaid and housing benefits she eventually loses after going to work. There aren't many such jobs around, said TaxWatch, which means that if Florida wants welfare reform it should prepare to spend more money, rather than less, in the near future.

That's the truth, from a reliable source. You can believe TaxWatch. Or you can believe in the Tooth Fairy.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.