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America's Disappeared | The Nation

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America's Disappeared

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Nearly three years after the inauguration of welfare reform, Congress and the Clinton Administration would do well to reflect upon the admonition of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who urged America always to be mindful of the ravages of poverty, "for if we are not among its victims, its reality fades from us."

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Paul Wellstone
Paul Wellstone is a Democratic senator from Minnesota.

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The elections of 2000--resulting in the election of George W. Bush to the presidency, a historic 50-50 split in the Senate and a reduced Republican margin in the House--have supplied the basis for countless commentators to intone that Democrats must operate "from the center" or else face political annihilation. Progressives have heard this tune often enough over the past decade, invariably following every election. It seems that regardless of whether Democratic fortunes are up or down in any given year, the lesson drawn by inside-the-Beltway pundits is always the same: Operate from the center. It's easy to dismiss this stale conventional wisdom, but in the aftermath of this unusual election many progressives are legitimately wondering about the prospects of a progressive politics.

The American people do want us to govern from the center, in a sense. But it is not the center the pundits and politicians in Washington talk about. Citizens want us to deal with issues that are at the center of their lives. They yearn for a politics that speaks to and includes them--affordable childcare, a good education for their children, health and retirement security, good jobs that will support their families, respect for the environment and human rights, clean elections and clean campaigns.

One thing this election confirmed is that progressive politics can be winning politics. The public is clearly center-left on the most important issues: campaign finance reform, education, healthcare, living-wage jobs, trade and the environment. And there can be no doubt that Al Gore's championing of ordinary people over powerful interests gave a postconvention boost to his sagging candidacy. Progressive populism responds to the widespread awareness that large forces in our economy have too much power and ordinary people have too little.

Another critical lesson of this election is that progressive constituencies cannot be ignored. Union households, African-Americans and Hispanics were crucial to Democratic mobilization and turnout. It has become increasingly implausible to argue that Democrats must distance themselves from working people and the disadvantaged in order to win elections.

Yet the politics of our country, strangely, is center-right. The cruel irony is that George W. Bush won the presidency, in good part, by campaigning on Democratic issues--investing in children, education, prescription drug costs, healthcare and Social Security. His "compassionate conservatism" praises local volunteer efforts by ordinary citizens yet rejects the notion that government can make a positive difference when it comes to the most pressing issues of people's lives. This is a fine philosophy if you're a large corporation or wealthy, but not such a great deal if you're a working family.

Moreover, President Bush's agenda is bold and clear: $1.6 trillion in tax cuts flowing mainly to the wealthy, which will erode our country's revenue base and thus bar major investments in childcare, education and healthcare; a direct assault on environmental and workplace health and safety standards; massive new Pentagon spending on unworkable missile defense; the privatization of Social Security and Medicare; and an open challenge to Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose. There is more to the Bush agenda, of course, but this much ought to be enough to galvanize progressive forces around the country.

The problem is that all too often progressives have been better at denunciation than annunciation. We need both. People are as interested in what you're for as what you're against. With a unified GOP preparing to take the reins of a new administration, now is the time for progressives to put forward new ideas and new leaders. We need to take stock, compare notes, support one another and begin building today a winning progressive politics for tomorrow. Progressive politics is a winning politics so long as the central focus is on workaday majority issues.

Progressive politics is successful when it is not top-down and elitist and when it respects the capacity of ordinary citizens. That is why the impetus for change must come from outside Washington. There are three crucial ingredients to democratic renewal and progressive change in America: good public policy, grassroots organizing and electoral politics. Policy provides direction and an agenda for action; grassroots organizing builds a constituency to fight for change; and electoral politics is the main way, in the absence of sweeping social movements, that we contest for power and hold decision-makers accountable for progressive public policy. These ingredients are linked like the three legs of a stool.

As important as new ideas are, another think tank or policy institute not connected to local grassroots organizing will not suffice. Many of the discussions I have had so far in the progressive community have focused on creating a new organization as a counterweight to the Democratic Leadership Council. I am sympathetic to these efforts. Without them, the DLC moves us toward a Democratic Party that gives the country what the eminent political scientist Walter Dean Burnham calls "the politics of excluded alternatives"--what Jim Hightower calls "downsized politics." I am all for representing the democratic wing of the Democratic Party. But progressive politics must draw its energy and ideas from local citizen-activists. Too often we have failed to make that critical connection.

On February 28, the Campaign for America's Future will hold a conference of citizens' organizations and activists in Washington to draw a blueprint for a campaign to fight for economic and social progress. I am excited about participating in this gathering, which will be an important first step. There must also be regional gatherings held around the country to involve people in a meaningful way in an inclusive effort to create a progressive politics. As a Midwesterner, I am particularly sensitive to an exclusive focus on East and West Coast gatherings.

We must recognize that there is a wealth of effective labor, community and citizen organizing going on all across the country. The Service Employees International Union is showing the way by organizing a grassroots campaign for universal healthcare. The grassroots campaign for clean money/clean elections is our brightest hope for political reform. The nationwide grassroots campaign for a living wage has supplied new energy to the struggle against inequality. And the Seattle Coalition of trade unionists, environmentalists, human rights advocates, family farmers and people of faith is providing a democratic counterweight to corporate-led globalization.

Even so, I often ask myself, "Why doesn't the whole equal the sum of its parts? How does this organizing translate into more national clout for a progressive politics?" If we are to make this grassroots politics part of an effective national politics, grassroots leaders must be included. We must reach out to these leaders, including those disenchanted with party politics. A lot of these leaders' energy is focused on progressive issues, not party politics. Likewise, most citizens are not interested in party strategies; their politics is much more concrete and personal. If we don't speak to the concrete and personal issues that affect people's lives, we will miss out on some of the best opportunities for organizing people.

We need to build a progressive force that does a lot of organizing within the Democratic Party--especially candidate recruitment and elections. But this cannot be the only goal. This new force must not only introduce new and exciting perspectives into the political dialogue of our country; it must also recruit candidates; provide training, skills and resources for successful campaigns; build an infrastructure of field directors and campaign managers to support progressive candidates; have a savvy media presence; apply effective grassroots organizing to electoral politics; and otherwise build political leadership at the local, state and federal levels of government.

This is more a democratic than a Democratic challenge, though I hope there is a strong connection between the two. It is a challenge that is certainly bigger than any one leader or campaign, and it will require progressives to work together and to pull in the same direction. But building such a grassroots-based effort to advocate effectively for the progressive agenda, and to put more progressives in office at every level and across the country, is a goal worth fighting for.

As I travel across the country, I am often asked why progressives should support Bill Bradley for President, as I do.

Since this major social policy reform experiment began, an estimated 1.6 million families have left the welfare rolls. Approximately 4.6 million Americans, mainly women and children, are no longer receiving cash assistance, and caseloads are at the lowest point in thirty years. It is on the basis of these numbers that so many Democrats and Republicans today are trumpeting the "success" of welfare reform. But reduced welfare rolls do not necessarily mean that we have reduced poverty in this country.

What about the fact that we have not seen a drop in poverty to match the caseload decline? What about the fact that millions of Americans work fifty-two weeks a year and are still so destitute they can't afford to buy food for their children? Do these families have adequate housing, medical care or childcare?

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 was supposed to "end welfare as we know it," replacing the New Deal­style program of Aid to Families with Dependent Children with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The new law gave states the primary responsibility for welfare, marking the end of the federal government's guarantee of cash assistance to the nation's poorest children, and set a five-year, cumulative, lifetime cap on benefits. The stated purpose of the law was a dual one: moving people off assistance and toward economic self-sufficiency.

So as we approach the three-year anniversary of welfare reform, it is fair to ask: How are poor families doing? The answer is: We don't know. Declining caseloads tell us nothing about whether families are on the road to economic self-sufficiency and better off, or whether they have become unable to escape poverty and are living in more dire circumstances than before welfare reform. The reason we don't know is that there exists no national, comprehensive portrait, based upon accurate data, of what happens to families when they no longer receive welfare. Today no one at the state, local or federal level is required to track recipients once they have left the welfare rolls. We have moved from "welfare as we know it" to welfare as we do not know it.

A number of recent studies give an inkling of what might be occurring nationwide, however. A report from Families USA, which analyzes Census Bureau data, estimates that 675,000 low-income people, mostly children, do not have medical coverage as a result of welfare reform. NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, collected data on people who visited Catholic social service facilities in ten states with large numbers of people eligible for aid and found an increase of 27 percent in the number of unemployed who do not receive welfare assistance. It also appears that many people who find employment are working at jobs that pay below, often far below, the poverty line. I fear that welfare reform is creating a new class of people, the "Disappeared Americans," many of whom are children.

Because of these disturbing reports, I recently proposed a welfare tracking amendment that would require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to report annually to Congress on the employment, wage, health insurance and childcare status of former Temporary Assistance for Needy Families recipients. The amendment was voted down 50 to 49 in the Senate, but I will keep submitting it until the Senate does the right thing. The logic in its favor is straightforward. Congress has a serious responsibility to evaluate the new policies it creates and to conduct oversight to discern whether its goals are being achieved. When you try something new, you need to find out whether it works. Why should welfare reform be any different? It is time to find out what is happening around the country to families that lose public assistance, especially in a period of prosperity, when we have seen an increase of 400,000 children in deep poverty.

The Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal once said, "Ignorance is never random." Sometimes we choose not to know what we do not want to know. In the case of welfare reform, we must have the courage to find out.

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