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Earlier this month, Mary Jo Bane, assistant secretary for families and children at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), announced that she was resigning from her post. Bane, a former Kennedy School professor, claimed that she was stepping down to protest President Clinton's signing of the recent welfare bill.
Mary Jo Bane has been one of the nation's most reasoned voices in the tumultuous rhetorical battles over the future of welfare policy. Her book, Poor Support: Poverty and the American Family, written with David T. Ellwood '75, the current academic dean of the Kennedy School, is a staple in almost any class about poverty and social programs. This book soundly refutes the claims of many conservative ideologues who seek to scapegoat the poor and blame welfare for a national decline in morality. Her decision to resign along with Peter B. Edelman, another assistant secretary who is leaving HHS over concerns about the welfare bill, indicates that her ideals are no longer valued in the Clinton administration. In fact, Bane's resignation shows that harsh and ill-conceived but politically popular right-wing social policies are more favored by Clinton than principled, more compassionate and less draconian approaches to America's enduring poverty and welfare dilemmas.
The assumption that Clinton signed the welfare bill for purely political reasons is not overly cynical. This welfare bill was not overwhelmingly different from earlier proposals that Clinton had vetoed; for example, it transforms the current system into block grants to the states. However, Clinton did not want to give Bob Dole the chance to ridicule him for failing to live up to his promise to "end welfare as we know it." The many flaws of this bill are beyond the scope of this editorial, but it is clear that welfare as we know it has been ended--the New Deal promise of federal aid to America's poorest citizens has been terminated.
In an unprecedented act of immigrant bashing, the welfare bill also threatens to cut off assistance to thousands of legal immigrants. Despite Clinton's appeals for employers to hire former welfare recipients it is highly dubious that the job market can absorb such a great influx of unskilled or marginally skilled workers. The precious little funds that have been allotted for job training are woefully inadequate. And the true victims of the welfare bill are children--a study by the Urban Institute and an internal report by the HHS estimate that one million children will be pushed into poverty as a result of the new welfare policies. While the welfare bill, to some extent, may reduce dependency and corruption in the system and encourage a stronger work ethic, the social safety net has been torn out from under millions of families.
Mary Jo Bane's principled resignation represents the best spirit of public service, and it reflects very well on the Kennedy School that it was her home. We hope it will be her home again.
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