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The 'Meaning' of America



What is the meaning of America? As I was taught to believe, it is freedom, liberty, opportunity; it is a sanctuary for the "huddled masses" escaping political and religious persecution. Congress, however, seems to be redefining this meaning. According to the national legislature, the meaning of America is simply being mean--as epitomized in welfare reform.

Reform, as defined, is fixing, improving, exorcising faults. But as Congress defines it, it is simply change--and in this case, change for the worse. What the latest version of the welfare bill really institutes is a codification of cruelty.

If this bill is passed as expected, for the first time in 61 years--since the New Deal--there no longer will be a guarantee of federal aid to those with dependent children. The social safety net will be rent asunder. Food stamps will be cut by $40 billion over the next six years--cut off after four months to those unemployed without dependents. Legal immigrants will be denied disability and food stamps. And as a crowning achievement, Congress has set a five-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits, slashed to two if recipients remain unemployed.

These are Congress' answers to a system that needs an overhaul. But what are Congress' answers to a child who needs diapers its mothers cannot provide? Do without. What are Congress' answers to a child who cannot afford the supplies needed for an already-subpar education? Stop complaining. What are Congress' answers to a person who cannot find work despite repeated and persistent attempts and is now without food? Starve.

The current welfare system needs reform; that much is true. It is a self-perpetuating system, promoting a cycle of dependency. There are those who abuse it, but this new bill is not the way towards a much-needed change. Yes, people on welfare should get job training and work. Yes, they should be made independent. But Congress' talk of workfare is completely devoid of any mechanism to achieve these goals. How will welfare recipients magically acquire the skills needed to compete in a market where just 1 in 14 of those who apply for a fast food job get it? Where will they gain skills when such key programs as JOBS (Job Opportunities and Basic Skills) are being terminated? Pressed further, how can those with an empty stomach even compete in a competitive job market? Congress' answer: they will, or else. What will happen to those who have surpassed their five-year limit? Too bad? It seems just too easy for the government to throw out loose terms like time limits and gainful employment in the name of reform and cutting the deficit by $60 billion in the process when the harsh realities of these so-called reforms are higher infant mortality, hunger, homelessness, higher crime, violence and despair.

Yet the deepest problem that welfare faces is not the outrageous numbers it must support or the programs it must implement or even the dollars it must save. It is the stigma it faces. People seem to have this image that with enough blood, sweat and tears, one should be able to "make it" or at least make ends meet. They therefore hold a grudge against those who must turn to the system to survive. The grudge is nurtured by the perception that most of the recipients are black, although the majority are in fact white. Racism becomes the unarticulated engine that drives the reform. The welfare system in turn becomes a punitive one. It becomes a system about punishing those who are seen as lazy, incompetent, as just not good enough. It becomes a prison sentence almost impossible to escape: one that is self-perpetuating for generations to come.

What today's reform really is about is not helping those who need it; it is about alleviating the burden from those who provide it. It is about cruelty. But when we are cruel to those on welfare, we are, primarily, being cruel to mothers and children. Thirty-nine percent of the children under 18 in New York City are on welfare. The number rises to 69 percent in Detroit, for a devastingly high national average, which reveals that 25 percent of all children by the time they reach the age of 18 will have been on welfare; on welfare for an average of not two or five years, but for an astounding 13. These are children who have not asked to be here, yet children who must bear the burden of their parents' mistakes and misfortunes.

Almost as debilitating as the social stigma welfare must fight is the political cause it has come to embody. Welfare now is not so much about fixing a failed system as it is about electoral politics, using the poor as pawns. Four years ago, Bill Clinton promised to "end welfare as we know it." Just two years ago, he tried to implement programs that would add $10 billion to the cost of running the system; $10 billion in the long-term hope of creating job training and jobs.

Just last year, he vetoed a bill almost identical to today's, after issuing a careful study on its effects which showed that 2.2 million children would become impoverished while $60 billion would be cut from the deficit. Today, the White House refuses to issue a similar study on a bill Clinton would never conceivably have signed just eight months ago. Welfare has truly become one of those issues on which Clinton must either break a promise while keeping his principles or keep a promise while compromising his principles. Not an enviable position to be in.

Thus, in the name of electoral politics, the misuse of the term reform continues. Few care enough to really understand what reform means; the rest throw the term around because it is the issue du jour. The term becomes yet another casualty in the increasingly long list of words debased. Of course, debasement of language is just symptomatic of an even greater problem. Deterioration of language is synonymous with the degradation of sensibilities as well. For decades, a deterioration has taken place in compassion, in caring for others in the name of self-interest; look at downsizing, an increase in broken families, a move to the safe suburbs from dangerous cities, the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer. So why should a working-class, blue-collar family support a system in which others can live off the government while they struggle to survive? A deterioration has taken place in the promise made to others across the seas; what happened to "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses?" I guess no one has looked in a mirror lately, because if they had, they would realize that, unless Native American, we were all on the same boat once.

What this bill really is talking about, in terms very tangible and imaginable, is starvation and homelessness in the name of reform, unemployment and despair in the name of reform, a downward spiral towards devolution in the name of reform and, in the words of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), a "social calamity" in the name of reform. If this be reform, then give me the status quo.

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