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Published on Monday, April 3, 2000 in the Jewish World Review
Welfare 'Reform':
The Americans Who Keep Disappearing
by Nat Hentoff

When the "welfare reform" law was signed by the president in 1996, it had the inspirational title "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act." Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, however, called it "the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction."

This is now a distinctly minority view, since the leaders of both political parties and much of the press agree that this "reform" is working splendidly. The welfare rolls are way down, right?

But a number of relief agencies, particularly the Washington-based Network -- a national Catholic social-justice lobby -- strongly disagree. After a two-year, 10-state survey of 2,500 clients of 59 Catholic social-services facilities, Network found that 24 percent "cannot provide sufficient food for their children." Many of them had been removed from welfare rolls. And since the legislation, Catholic and other relief facilities have become increasingly overloaded.

Moreover, a Families USA study revealed that 1.25 million people lost Medicaid coverage and became uninsured due to welfare reform. The majority were children under 19. That number keeps increasing as the five-year cutoff point for all benefits from welfare arrives in every state.

These and other studies are no substitute for an official, comprehensive national study of the effects of this "reform." For months, Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota has been pressing for an amendment to do just that. "We have created," he keeps saying, "a whole new class of the `disappeared.' We don't know what is happening."

One of the few reporters who has spent a great deal of time tracking the results of welfare reform is Jason DeParle of The New York Times. He writes that after three years, "what seems most notable about the lives of the poor... is the long list of things that remain the same: violent neighborhoods, absent fathers, bare cupboards, epidemics of depression, the temptations of drugs." These "endure not just for the families who are obvious failures, left with neither welfare or work. They endure for the seeming successes. They endure for those with jobs." He has been focusing on Wisconsin, widely considered the most "successful" in reducing welfare rolls.

Sen. Wellstone has the persistence of Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." After many failures, his tracking amendment finally passed the Senate on March 1, 89-9, with two senators not voting. Considerable credit is due to the support of Republican senator Paul Coverdell, who might sue for defamation if anyone described him as a bleeding-heart liberal.

 The Wellstone amendment requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to report to Congress before June 1, 2001 -- before the reauthorization of the 1996 welfare-reform law -- on "the extent and severity of child poverty in the United States" since the enactment of that law.

Once these national facts are determined, the Wellstone amendment adds, "if the Secretary determines that the extent or severity of child poverty has increased, the Secretary shall include with the report a legislative proposal addressing the factors that led to such increase."

One recent study -- by the University of California at Berkeley and by Yale University -- examined the lives of 948 women on welfare in California, Florida and Connecticut. A report on what the researchers learned about the women was broadcast on National Public Radio: "Very few finished high school, all are single, most have never been married.... All had preschool-age children 2 to 4 years old." Their incomes are low, as are their subsidies for child care. The care they can afford is not changing the lives of poor children who have been "liberated" from the welfare rolls as their mothers found jobs.

When the welfare law was enacted, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (who, like the president, is a prototypical New Democrat) informed us that the "law provides hope for poor Americans." And Gloria Steinem proclaimed that one good thing about the new law was that "it has gotten the press to cover welfare. That will make an enormous difference to this country."

But the press has largely ignored what's been happening to "the disappeared," especially to working mothers without the time to read Steinem on feminism. What may finally make a difference to those women and their children is the stubborn determination of one man, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. But his amendment still has to get through a conference committee of the House and Senate, and be signed by Clinton.


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