For months President Clinton has boasted that events have vindicated his support for laws ending "welfare as we know it" -- a stance that caused many Democrats to charge that he was a conscienceless politician seeking re-election on the backs of the most miserable people in the land.
Ever since he signed legislation that ended 61 years of a federal safety net for the poor and left welfare in the hands of state officials, whose bent ranges from cost-conscious compassion to cruelty, the president has crowed about the huge reductions in the number of people on the welfare rolls.
"The debate is over. We now know that welfare reform works," Clinton has said.
Well, not so fast! The president has never answered a question that I, and others, have posed: "What happened to all those people who were bounced from the welfare rolls? Did they all get jobs?"
Last Thursday, the New York Times printed a very disturbing article by a great observer of the American social scene, Jason DeParle, about welfare reform in Mississippi. He writes: "With unemployment rates hovering at 10 percent or more, many of those leaving the rolls are failing to find jobs. Indeed, during one recent period, the families dropped for violating the new work rules outnumbered those placed in jobs by a margin of nearly two to one."
A lot of us worried about what would happen in states like Mississippi, whose governor, Kirk Fordice, has a pre-slavery mentality regarding social services. A woman on welfare in Mississippi who refuses to become part of a work program that she regards as indentured servitude is punished severely, as are her children. Not only are the meager cash grants taken away, but so are the food stamps that enabled the children to eat at a survival level and the medical insurance for adults.
I have never opposed a work requirement for people on welfare as long as jobs are available which represent something better than a reimposition of slavery. But a "reform" that is so punitive that it consigns children to hunger and stark deprivation is a disgrace to any state and to the nation.
I wish that every able-bodied American had a job good enough to make welfare programs obsolete, but the latest report from the Labor Department tells us that this country still had 6.8 million unemployed persons in September. These are job-seekers. The rules still ought to be that this wealthy society will never let these jobless people and their children fall below a certain level of degradation. It galls me to see a Democratic president focus constantly on how many people are cut from welfare rolls while saying next to nothing about those who still desperately need the help of a caring government.
"Work" has been the magic word in every welfare reform scheme of the last half-century. But, referring to the relatively impoverished Mississippi Delta region of 11 counties, DeParle wrote: "The difficulty of converting 'work' from a slogan to a program is particularly evident in a region like this, where jobs and child care are scarce, education levels are low, distances are great and public transportation does not exist."
The federal government must have people, beginning with the president, who periodically take a hard look to see whether their "reforms" have produced something that in the long run will be more destructive than "welfare as we used to know it."
North America Syndicate