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Welfare Reform In Name Only

POSTCARD FROM ILLINOIS

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

"If a nation cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." --President John F. Kennedy '40. 1961.

A bill that will push more than one million children into poverty will not save poor families. A bill that fails to make work an alternative to welfare is not about jobs. And a bill that emphasizes budget-cutting rather than assistance is not reform.

President Clinton has spoken repeatedly about ending welfare as we know it--abandoning a system that focuses on eligibility and checkwriting in favor of one that encourages work at decent wages. On Tuesday, Congress sent the president a welfare reform bill that requires recipients to find jobs within two years and sets a strict five-year maximum for lifetime welfare receipt.

Yet Congress slashed funding for programs to assist the 53 percent of current recipients projected to hit that time limit, and it does nothing to improve wages in entry-level jobs for which those citizens are qualified. The president should veto this bill.

Long-term welfare recipients are generally uneducated, have little work experience, have young children in their care and are from disadvantaged minority groups. Any jobs they find will be low-paying ones. Consider this example: A single-parent mother in Illinois would collect $7,080 in welfare if she did not work. In a full-time job paying $4.90 per hour, she would earn only $7,632 after subtracting for taxes, child care, transportation and clothing--and she would lose her health benefits. Not an easy life, by any means.

A serious reform package designed to move people from welfare to work will entail certain short-term expenses, including provisions for child care and other supports that boost the effective wages of the working poor. Congress took one step in that direction by raising the minimum wage, which had fallen to its lowest level since 1956. Now it is taking two steps back.

The current welfare bill, over the next six years, reduces food stamps and school lunch programs by over $10 million, slashes aid for disabled children by $7 billion and cuts the EITC, an income tax credit for the working poor, by $20 billion. Legal immigrants are barred from receiving benefits at all. This is no way to help low-income workers help themselves.

The bill also discourages states from offering job training to those needing additional skills. It changes the funding process and cuts federal welfare spending by $60 billion over the next six years. Each dollar spent by states today is matched with $3 to $4 in federal grants. In exchange, the federal government mandates various programs and sets eligibility standards. Congressional Republicans, however, would shift all funding to block grants, thereby allowing states to scrap any programs and any requirements they choose.

The new formula would give poor southern states like Arkansas or Louisiana less than $15 per poor child per week for all child care, job training, workfare policies and cash assistance programs combined. Combined. Richer northern states like New York and California will receive $40 per child weekly, but that still leaves no room for meaningful payments or innovative programs.

An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office concludes that states will receive $12 billion less over six years than they'll need to maintain current benefit levels and job training funds. Without federal mandates and without money to implement optional state programs, states will save money by throwing recipients off the welfare rolls.

Leaving welfare is a process, not an event. There will be no room for counseling the 70 percent of recipients who lose their jobs within the first year after leaving welfare. No room for child care support enforcement measures. No room for subsidized government jobs of last resort.

Worse, Congress defeated a voucher proposal to provide children of time-limited parents with diapers, clothing and food. Over 300,000 children of legal immigrants will become ineligible for benefits immediately. "Many of those on the right privately admit [their] real goal is to end federal spending on welfare entirely and that this is the first step on that slippery slope," wrote David T. Ellwood '75, Weiner professor of social policy at the Kennedy School. Whatever their goal, it's not helping Americans.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that he "trembled" for his country when he remembered that God is just, that He will not withhold judgment forever. When "reform" means throwing families into the streets and starving their children, it's possible that judgment day is nearing. And when it comes, the blood will run ankle-deep.

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