Ruth Conniff | The Nation

Ruth Conniff

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Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is political editor of The Progressive


News and Features

The grassroots organization Progressive Majority has a modest ambition: Take over state and national politics by 2010. Welcome to the left-wing conspiracy.

How can the left build a new majority? EMILY's List has a big piece
of the answer.

Women's sports are under attack by jocks who have an ally in the President.

It was bad enough that the Bush Administration co-opted the Children's
Defense Fund slogan "Leave No Child Behind." Then the most famous former
board member of CDF, Hillary Rodham Clinton, apparently decided to leave
children behind in her rush to the political center, endorsing a bill
that contained some of the worst elements of the Bush welfare reform

Fortunately, Hillary's Senate colleagues decided to take a courageous
stand. To the surprise and relief of advocates, the Senate produced a
bipartisan welfare reform bill that is more progressive than the current
law in almost every way.

The Senate bill, which emerged from the Finance Committee and soon goes
to the floor, repudiates the White House vision of welfare reform. But
the final version is still up in the air, and the politics of welfare
reform are fickle, as evidenced by Hillary's unexpectedly harsh
position. Whether we have a welfare reform law aimed at simply ending
welfare or a sincere effort to help families get out of poverty will be
decided in the days to come.

The House of Representatives and the White House wanted to double the
hours of work--paid and unpaid--for poor single mothers, effectively
ending their chances of getting better jobs through education and
training. They wanted to do away with exemptions from this workload for
mothers with small children and other significant barriers to
employment, and make it even harder for them to obtain access during
"work hours" to drug treatment, domestic violence counseling and other
services that might help people become more employable--not to mention
lead more tolerable lives. (The bill Hillary signed onto also contained
these provisions.) They wanted to keep the ban on Medicaid for many
legal immigrants. And, despite all the emphasis on work, they added next
to nothing for childcare, stranding single mothers with young children
in an impossible situation.

The Senate has taken a much more responsible approach: rejecting the
increase in work hours, expanding education and training, and restoring
benefits for legal immigrants. The Senate bill, however, has a few major
flaws. One of the biggest is the $5.5 billion proposed for childcare
funding, which will not even cover the cost of maintaining existing

The final bill will likely increase those funds (twenty-five Democrats,
including Hillary Clinton, are on the record as supporting more money
for childcare). The bigger problem is that the quality of available care
is so inferior as to be developmentally damaging and, in some cases,
outright dangerous for poor children. Two toddlers died when they were
forgotten in a hot van all day at a daycare center used by
welfare-reform clients in Memphis. More commonly, children find
themselves strapped into car seats, attended only by blaring television
sets, or simply left to roam the streets. The trade-off of more mothers
in the work force for more bad care leaves kids the losers.

If policy-makers are serious about ending the cycle of poverty, they
will look closely at the price children are paying for welfare "reforms"
that focus relentlessly on pushing more poor mothers into low-wage work.
A study by researchers at Columbia, Stanford, Yale and the University of
California reports that mothers who have moved from welfare to work
spend four hours less each day with their preschool children, read to
and talk with their children less, suffer twice the rate of clinical
depression as the rest of the population and cut meals to make ends

"You go through so much because of these people," says Swan Moore, a
welfare client and member of Community Voices Heard, an advocacy group
in New York City. Moore was one of 200 low-income women who took a bus
ride to Washington in May to protest outside Hillary Clinton's home when
she signed the welfare reform bill written by Evan Bayh, head of the
Democratic Leadership Council. The women threw waffles on Clinton's
lawn, urging her to stop "waffling"--saying she supported poor women and
children, then signed punitive legislation.

"I just wish politicians would meet with people and talk to us and stop
trying to hop on some political bandwagon," says Moore. "How can you
make laws for people you know nothing about?"

Shortly after the protest, Clinton joined Ted Kennedy in a statement of
progressive principles on welfare reform. But her waffling shows just
how tenuous support for the poor can be. The question now is: Will
Senate Democrats stick to their guns and fight for welfare reform that
makes a positive difference? Watch what happens in the floor debate,
particularly on issues of childcare and the five-year lifetime limit on
assistance, which currently applies even to people working in low-paying
jobs, who receive income supplements as low as $50 a month.

There is a real chance for progressive legislation to reach the
President's desk, now that the Senate bill has marshaled bipartisan
support. The welfare bill came out of the most conservative committee in
the Senate. Democrats have the votes to make it even better on the

The world has changed since the Clinton White House ended welfare as we
knew it in 1996. No one is arguing for a return to the old system.
Instead, advocates are pushing for a few provisions to allow poor women
with children to earn a living and do right by their kids. The Senate
bill contains the seeds of hope for that vision. Rather than risking a
veto, the White House may try to delay until the bill dies. That would
mean a one-year extension of the current law--but a year from now there
will be even less money available for progressive programs.

It's now or never. As the 1996 welfare reform law comes up for
reauthorization, Congress and the President have a historic opportunity
to change the future for children who live below the poverty line--16
percent of all kids, and 30 percent of African-American children. That's
a lot of people to leave behind.

On a spectacular spring day at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, about 1,500 college kids are sitting by the lake outside the student union, drinking beer, listening to bands and waiting for