WHAT WE THINK
March 8, 2002 | Page 3
MILLIONS OF poor people will lose welfare benefits this year under a deadline imposed by Bill Clinton's welfare "reform" law. But George W. Bush doesn't think Clinton went far enough.
The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act imposed a five-year lifetime limit on benefits and strict work requirements for recipients. Many of the rules in the law expire this year, so Washington will have to come up with part two of welfare deform.
Last week, Bush unveiled a tougher "Working Toward Independence" welfare plan. His program would require 70 percent of recipients in a state to be working by 2007--and raise the number of hours they work in a week to 40.
The poor will have to "work toward independence" on their own, because Bush's new budget eliminates funding for job training for the unemployed. Yet there's plenty of money--$300 million a year--for Bush's new pet project: public education on the benefits of marriage.
It couldn't be more obvious that Bush and Co. want to transfer the costs of the recession onto the backs of individuals--under the cover of demanding "personal responsibility."
Bush's right-hand man in this assault is Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who pioneered draconian welfare cuts as the governor of Wisconsin. Thompson's W-2 program was hailed as a "success story"--much like Clinton's welfare "reform" is today.
Welfare rolls have shrunk, and people are working, argue supporters of welfare reform. But that's not the whole story.
Nationally, about 40 percent of former welfare recipients aren't working. And most of the "lucky" ones with jobs earn just $6 to $8 an hour. According to one study, one-third of former recipients said that they had to cut the size of meals because there wasn't enough food.
Some "success." And it will get worse if Bush has his way.
"It's almost welfare reform in Wonderland," said Deepak Bhargava, director of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support. "We're in the middle of a recession. Now is a strange time to be arguing we ought to toughen work requirements on poor families."
In 1996, most Democrats fell in line behind Clinton when he slashed the social safety net and sold the proposal he stole from the Republicans as progressive. This time around, it looks like they'll line up behind Bush.
"Philosophically, the president is heading in the right direction," declared Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), chair of the Democratic Leadership Council. Bayh and Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.) are introducing their own bill to increase work requirements.
Many people accepted the argument for the Clinton law in 1996--after years of hearing welfare recipients vilified as "lazy cheats." But as stage two of welfare "reform" approaches, the same people could find themselves and their friends hammered by the recession--and in need of government assistance. This will create a wider opening to challenge welfare cuts.
That's why we have to link opposition to welfare deform with the fight for decent jobs and against Bush's tax giveaways to the rich. We can't let Bush force workers and the poor to pay for the crisis.