The federal government is about to cancel its 6-decade-old guarantee to support the nation’s poor.
Ending weeks of speculation, President Clinton promised Wednesday to sign the sweeping welfare revision moving through Congress.
A few hours later, the House approved the bill by a 328-101 vote, with half of the Democrats voting against it. Among the Idaho and Washington congressional delegations, only Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., voted against the bill.
The Senate is expected to approve it today.
That means that beginning next July 1, millions of poor people needing government help will find the rules have changed.
States will be responsible for designing their own welfare programs and deciding who is eligible for help. When the changes take effect, the clock starts ticking on welfare recipients who will have to work for benefits and face a limit on how long they can get help.
Deadbeat parents will lose driver’s and professional licenses and be tracked down across state lines. And most legal immigrants who are not citizens will be barred from getting checks and food stamps, even if they work and pay taxes.
The president’s endorsement left Republicans smiling and liberal advocacy groups outraged. Some Democrats denounced it as a cruel attack on poor children; others shrugged it off as a necessary political move in an election year.
But after 18 months of nudging the bill in his direction and two vetoes of earlier versions, Clinton said it came down to a choice between enacting a still-flawed bill or preserving a failed welfare system.
“A long time ago, I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility and family, trapping generation after generation in dependency and hurting the very people it was designed to help,” he said at the White House. “Today we have an historic opportunity to make welfare what it was meant to be: a second chance, not a way of life.”
One of the biggest flaws remaining in the bill, Clinton said, is the broad prohibitions of social services to people who are in the country legally, but who are not citizens.
The bill estimates the federal government will save $55 billion over the next six years. Most of that will come from denying cash, food stamps and health services to legal non-citizens.
“This provision has nothing to do with welfare reform; it is simply a budget-saving measure, and it is not right,” Clinton said. He said he will propose legislation to remove those provisions, but his aides said that would probably not happen this year.
The welfare debate, spurred by Clinton’s campaign vow “to end welfare as we know it” has been a philosophical and partisan battle focused mostly on abolishing Aid to Families With Dependent Children, a program began in 1935 mostly to help poor widows and their children before they remarried. Currently, about 14 million people, 9 million of them children, receive AFDC benefits.
Now, almost half of the women receiving benefits have never been married, and a hard core group of families have lived off the welfare system for generations. Poll after poll have shown strong public support for changing the system to better help families support themselves - if children were not hurt.
That caveat has fueled arguments over the bill - even among White House aides debating until Clinton made his decision.
Reaction was as passionate as the debate.
Republicans, who made welfare revision a part of their 1994 “Contract With America” campaign document, celebrated Clinton’s decision as an example of how closely the Republicans reflect American principles.
They acknowledged, however, that the final bill - crafted to try to get Clinton’s signature - is better than their first bill, which would have put children of teen mothers into orphanages and cut back money for school lunch programs.
House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, R-Ohio, said, “This is one of those successes that when we get old and we’re all in our rocking chairs, we’re going to look back and say, ‘Thank God we were able to make America a little bit better.”’
GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole sought to take credit for the bill, calling Clinton’s decision “an election-year conversion” to Dole’s plan. While Senate majority leader, Dole negotiated support for the welfare bill.
In response, Clinton said humility was needed in the face of such a monumental shift in social policy and that there would be enough credit, or blame, to go around.
Governors, who helped write the bill, heralded this as the beginning of a new responsiveness to the real needs of the poor. Ohio’s Republican governor, George Voinovich, said states will “find solutions that Washington has failed to address.”
A more somber Clinton, a former governor, cautioned that may not be so easy: “The states asked for this responsibility; now they have to shoulder it and not run away from it. We have to make sure that in the coming years, reform and change actually result in moving people from welfare to work.”
Religious and charitable groups and family advocates had attacked the plan for ending the federal safety net for the poor. Charities will not be able to pick up the slack as states become too overburdened to care for the needy, they fear.
Speaking on behalf of the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, called the welfare bill “deeply flawed” and said it “unfairly targets hungry children and legal immigrants.”
“This legislation may meet the needs of politicians but fails too many poor children,” said Skylstad.
“The politicians have done what they think the voters want,” said David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a Christian antihunger group. “But in several years, when the devastating effects of this bill become fully apparent, decent people will be horrified.”
1. Who’a on welfare 2. How welfare will change