MAXWELL:  Play a part in welfare reform

9/1/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Blurb


Liberal Democrats are fuming and most Republicans are gloating over President Bill Clinton’s signing of historic legislation that, indeed, will “change welfare as we know it.” As they fume and gloat, however, the major players in each camp should go back and read the president’s speech during the Rose Garden ceremony.

The speech, more than any other words uttered by anyone either before or after the signing, frames the nation’s moral duty to help make the new welfare program succeed. This landmark reform deserves better treatment than most of us gave to school busing, affirmative action and other efforts marked by race and ideals of equity.

For liberal Democrats, who do not know when to give up a lost cause, the law represents the moral betrayal of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal welfare program that guaranteed aid to the nation’s poor.

Marion Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, for example, dismissed the enactment as “a moment of shame.” U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters warned from the floor of the Democratic Convention in Chicago: “Mr. President . . . you better fix the bill.” Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Majority, scolded the president for creating “a shameful place for himself in history.”

To Edelman, Waters, Ireland and others, Clinton offered this bit of common sense: “We all know that the typical family on welfare today is very different from the one that welfare was designed to deal with 60 years ago. We all know that there are a lot of good people on welfare who just get off it in the ordinary course of business, but that a significant number of people are trapped on welfare for a very long time, exiling them from the entire community of work that gives structure to our lives. . . .

“From now on, our nation’s answer to this great social challenge will no longer be a never-ending cycle of welfare. It will be the dignity, the power and the ethic of work. Today, we are taking an historic chance to make welfare what it was meant to be: a second chance, not a way of life.”

Like Clinton’s critics, I, too, believe that the measure will cause a lot of suffering for young children, at least initially. But I am equally convinced that continuing the current system of handouts would deepen the nightmare. Any veteran social worker or government official who has worked with the chronically poor will tell you that welfare is a cruel antidote for poverty. Clinton was right when saying that perpetual welfare isolates “huge numbers of poor people and their children from the rest of mainstream America.”

No one should wish such a fate, with its many problems, on poor parents and their innocent children. In a column for the New York Times, Joseph Califano, former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Carter administration and president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, writes that at least “20 percent of women on welfare _ as many as one million mothers _ have drugs or alcohol problems severe enough to require treatment.”

Califano decries the welfare bill’s lack of treatment provisions for these women, arguing that thousands of them and their children will be thrown into homelessness as state and local foster care systems sink under increased numbers of new clients. In no way do I suggest that welfare per se causes these women to turn to alcohol and drugs. But I agree with Califano that “these women are in large measure victims of their own poverty.”

And what causes their poverty? Other life circumstances notwithstanding, the cycle of dependence on welfare is a major source. On one front, instead of wasting precious energy lambasting Clinton, his Democratic detractors should develop strategies for teaching welfare recipients how to help themselves kick self-destructive habits. They also should create programs that teach welfare recipients to respect work and education. On another front, non-profit organizations must establish effective lobbying campaigns to add treatment and rehabilitation now missing from the welfare program.

To Republican office-holders gloating over the new legislation, who have built careers on bashing poor people and the mythic “welfare queen,” and to business owners who long ago wrote off welfare recipients as employees, Clinton challenged them to become his partners in real welfare reform.

“The governors asked for this responsibility,” Clinton said, “Now they’ve got it. There are mayors that have responsibilities, county officials that have responsibilities. Every employer in this country that ever made a disparaging remark about the welfare system needs to think about whether he or she should now hire somebody from welfare to go to work. Go to the state and say, okay, you give me the check, I’ll use it as an income supplement, I’ll train these people, I’ll help them to start their lives, and we’ll go forward from here.”

In the Rose Garden speech, Clinton also challenged average citizens: “Every person in America tonight who sees a report of this who has ever said a disparaging word about the welfare system should now say, “Okay, that’s gone. What is my responsibility to make it better?’ ”

Now, the rest of us must sort out our individual commitments to the new policy. We must decide if we earnestly want to help bring dignity to the lives of the poor or continue to fume and gloat.