Shame on us
Posted: Monday, April 9, 2012 7:00 pm
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — We opposed it in 1996; we oppose it today. So-called welfare reform was President Bill Clinton’s true low point. The party with a heart, the party claiming to be re our brother’s keeper, must lead the war on poverty. Instead, Clinton abandoned these Democratic mainstays and chose to prove he was a centrist by “ending welfare as we know it.”
It was a decision supported by anecdotes, not facts. The Reagan era gave us images of welfare queens, those people who abused the system and lived well on the dole. But for every welfare queen how many of our fellow citizens were living in dire, hopeless straits? The answer, thanks to welfare reform, is many more today than in 1996. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the welfare rolls have been cut by more than 50 percent since 1996, while unemployment and poverty — exacerbated by the Great Recession — have soared.
It is unconscionable that the wealthiest nation in the world even has poverty and homelessness let alone in such numbers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 46.2 million Americans were living in poverty as of 2010. In 2007, just before the recession began, the National law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimated that approximately 3.5 million people were likely to experience homelessness. But homeless people make up a below-the-radar demographic that defies statistical methodology.
The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children, placed time limits on aid. In 1997, Congress passed Welfare-to-Work grants, and politicians of many stripes hailed these laws for providing workfare, not welfare. But then the Great Recession hit. Unemployment doubled, and destitution became rampant, exposing these heartless laws for what they are.
The problem is that impoverished and homeless people tend not to vote. They are virtually without a political voice, and American politics moves in waves. We are currently in one of those political troughs of selfishness that caters to constituent groups rather than noble ideals, and posterity will not regard this as one of America’s finer moments.
President Lyndon Johnson initiated a War on Poverty, and it is time to reenergize it. Interestingly, it is possible to achieve victory in that war while actually saving taxpayer money. The current system operates on federal grants to states, but with so few strings that various states are able to divert the funds to other uses. The old system provided unlimited funds as long as the states matched them. The new system limits the funds, and states often do not match them, thereby by making the situation even worse.
The solution is to cut out the middle men, the states. Let the Social Security system make payouts directly to the needy. The cost savings could be enormous; the resurrection of our national character unquantifiable. Published in The Messenger 4.9.12