The Right Welfare Reform

The Right Welfare Reform


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 plan.

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 services.

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 meet.

“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 floor.

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.

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