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States' welfare obligations

If anything, President Clinton was too easy on the nation's governors for their continuing failure to make sure former welfare recipients get the Medicaid and food-stamp benefits they need and are owed. It's not surprising that Clinton, himself a former governor, would want to cajole more than criticize in his address to the National Governors Association in St. Louis last weekend. But this is one area where governors and states have no excuses. They deserved a presidential rebuke.

Even if Clinton's low-key tone failed to convey the seriousness of the problem, his administration's own numbers make the case. As the poor have moved from welfare to work, hundreds of thousands across the country have lost the government-funded health and food-stamp benefits the 1996 welfare law says they remain eligible to receive during the period of transition.

In some states, including New York and California, officials have intentionally kept welfare recipients in the dark or found other ways to deny them benefits. The denials fly in the face of congressional intent and undermine the ultimate goal of helping people become self-sufficient.

States have used only $39-million of $500-million Congress set aside to help them ensure that these benefits would follow former welfare recipients at least until they settled into their jobs. Any unspent money is scheduled to revert back to the federal government at the end of September, and some congressional leaders already are talking of using the money for other purposes. That would be scandalous.

Although Florida has a better record than many states, it needs to do more to meet its obligations under the law. A federal class-action lawsuit was recently filed against the state by four welfare-to-work participants who say their benefits were improperly denied. While officials from the Florida Department of Children and Families dispute the extent of the problem, they agree that improper cutoffs have occurred in some cases and say they support efforts to extend the availability of federal funds.

Fortunately, the president is following his words with action. He announced plans to send federal inspectors into some states to conduct on-site reviews "to ensure that there are no roadblocks, intentional or, even more likely, unintentional roadblocks, to those who are eligible for Medicaid." The states got what they wanted: the primary responsibility for administering welfare-to-work programs. Now they must be held to their obligations under the law.