Today’s sermon is for the brethren and sistren in the media. And those who like to gripe about them might take pen in hand to write an editor about this one.
The reporting on the welfare reform bill has been awful - story after story after story on the political implications of the legislation. Will President Clinton sign it? Will he veto it? How much would a veto hurt him?
If Clinton vetoes the bill, GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole gets a dandy election issue. If Clinton doesn’t veto it, Republicans will claim credit for “ending welfare as we know it.” Up one side and down the other, the political calculations in this minuet have been covered ad nauseam.
There’s just one thing the press corps has left out: what actually is in the welfare bill.
The New York Times even has thoughtfully located the key segment of the citizenry in this debate; it turns out to be the swing voters. “Those voters - slightly younger, slightly poorer, slightly less educated than the average - are among those who deserted the Democrats in the 1994 midterm elections.”
Now here’s another gripping bit of news from the polls: “Clinton … gets less credit among voters for trying to change than he does on almost any other issue - even one on which he flat-out has failed.” According to the Times poll, “49 percent of respondents thought Clinton has not made a real effort to change welfare, compared with 44 percent who thought he has.”
Exultant Republicans think they have Clinton in what is known in chess as a fork - damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, speaking from his well-known perch of moral authority (Newt for Pope), said: “The president has an absolute moral obligation to sign this bill.”
Well, now that we’re up on the political ramifications of the crucial sign-it/veto-it debate, could somebody please just tell us what the legislation actually would do?
Sure, happy to oblige. It would shove at least 1 million more American children into poverty.
We’re always calling ourselves “the richest country in the world.” Actually, we’re not, but we’re still well up there, and we already have almost one-quarter of our children being raised in poverty.
The Republican response to what we all dutifully acknowledge is a dreadful welfare system is to get rid of welfare as we know it by making it worse.
But who will pay the price? Not these famous swing voters. One. Million. Children.
And the 1 million children who will be moved directly into poverty by this bill are only the beginning of the horror that this legislation is almost guaranteed to create.
The House bill would eliminate all assured federal funding in cases of child abuse and neglect. Victims of domestic violence and their children would have no assurance that if they escape the violence, they could at least survive on cash assistance until they were able to find a job.
Let me tell you something heretical about welfare as we know it: It works just the way we want it to for the vast majority of welfare recipients.
Seventy percent of those who receive welfare get on it and get off it in far less time than the five-year cutoff mandated in the welfare reform bill.
Of course, that does leave us stuck with the other 30 percent who get on it and stay on it - sometimes for one generation after another in the same family. But if all we want to do is budge that 30 percent off welfare, why harm the other 70 percent who use the temporary assistance as it originally was designed to be used?
Under the bills, the federal guarantee of cash assistance for poor children and families would be replaced by flat block grants to the states, with a pitifully inadequate provision for extra assistance should recession and unemployment hit.
In addition, states then would be allowed to cut their own spending on income assistance by 20 percent under the Senate bill, 25 percent under the House bill.
Would they do that? Do poor children vote? Could you raise a child on $15 a week for food, clothing and shelter?
There is some kind of magical thinking that seizes politicians in election years. “I know how to fix welfare - we’ll just require them all to get jobs!”
What jobs? The reason that most people are on welfare in the first place is that they can’t find jobs - or child care. Or the jobs don’t carry health insurance, so when a child gets sick, his mom has to go back on welfare to get medical treatment.
The way this society works is really simple: The excrement flows downhill, and the people at the bottom are drowning in it. Every little change that makes it harder for them to climb up means that millions more of them will drown. And most of them are children.
Hey, media people - that’s the story, stupid.
Local journalism is essential.
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