TOPICS > Politics

Welfare Reform: The End of Guarantees?

July 24, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: For President Clinton signing sweeping welfare reform legislation would fulfill a campaign promise he made four years ago.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: It’s time to end this system as we know it and to start with two simple principles. First, people who can work ought to go to work, and no one should be able to stay on welfare forever. And second, no one who does work and who has children in the home should live in poverty, as too many are today.

KWAME HOLMAN: For House Republicans welfare reform would fulfill a commitment they made two years ago when they signed their Contract with America.

REP. JOHN KASICH, Chairman, Budget Committee: (July 18) The story is this Congress has created the most significant amount of change we have seen in this city in 40 years and you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

REP. NEWT GINGRICH, Speaker of the House: The yays are 256. The nays are 170. And the bill passes.

KWAME HOLMAN: Last week, as it had twice before during this session of Congress, the House of Representatives passed welfare reform legislation by a wide margin. Yesterday, the Senate, as it has twice before, did the same. However, those last two times President Clinton followed through with threats to veto the legislation.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: (September 1995) If welfare reform remains a bipartisan effort to promote work, protect children, and collect child support from people who ought to pay it, we will have welfare reform this year, and it will be a very great thing. But if the Congress gives in to extremist pressure and walks away from this bipartisan American common ground, they will kill welfare reform.

KWAME HOLMAN: The current version of welfare reform limits welfare recipients to five years of benefits and requires able-bodied recipients to work within two years. It reduces the availability of food stamps and cuts off welfare assistance for most legal immigrants. Supporters, mostly Republicans, again are urging the President to sign the bill.

SEN. TRENT LOTT, Majority Leader: This is a genuine, tough welfare reform bill but it’s one the President has indicated he wanted to sign, and we assume he is going to keep his word and sign this one.

KWAME HOLMAN: However, differences between the House and Senate welfare bills need to be resolved. The House bill would deny extra welfare benefits to mothers who have additional children, and the House bill would cut off food stamps to able-bodied recipients who don’t find work within three months. The Senate bill would cut off food stamps after four months of unemployment in any year. Only 30 Democrats voted for the House version of welfare reform.

REP. BEN CARDIN, (D) Maryland: If our objective is to get the President to veto another bill, then I understand what the Republicans are doing.

KWAME HOLMAN: The more moderate version of welfare reform that emerged from the Senate yesterday did so with a veto-proof majority. Half of Senate Democrats voted for it, and it’s clearly the version President Clinton prefers.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Today the Senate, I want you to know, took some major steps to improve the bill going through Congress. It significantly increases support for the nutritional and the health care needs of young children who happen to be on welfare. And that’s encouraging.

KWAME HOLMAN: But today, White House spokesman Mike McCurry reiterated the President will not make a decision on welfare reform until the final version emerges from the conference between the House and Senate.

MIKE McCURRY, White House Spokesman: We’ve made it clear how we can improve this bill, and so it achieves the bipartisan support necessary to reform welfare as we know it, and there certainly is satisfactory progress being made in that direction. The bill now goes to a conference committee, and we’ll see what emerges from that conference committee, but we remain very hopeful, as the President said yesterday, that this bill is headed towards a signature and not a veto.

MARGARET WARNER: Now to discuss the merits and politics of this last welfare reform bill, we’re joined by Sen. Rick Santorum, who was one of the key Republican leaders involved in drafting the bill; Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, a member of the Senate Finance Committee who voted against the measure yesterday; Eloise Anderson, who oversees the nation’s largest welfare system as the director of the California Department of Social Services; and Robert Greenstein, a welfare analyst and executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank. Welcome, all of you. Sen. Moseley-Braun, why do you think the President should veto this bill?

SEN. CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN, (D) Illinois: Because it’s bad legislation, because it punishes children, because it does not achieve the goals of real welfare reform. I support real welfare reform that gives people the ability to work and to take care of their own children.

This bill, however, does nothing in terms of preparing people for the work force, job placement, child care while they’re working. It does not move from welfare to work in any sensible way, and more to the point, it punishes the 67 percent of the recipients of welfare who are children. Most of the people on welfare are children. Of the 14 million, 9 million are children. Of those 9 million children, 60 percent are under the age of six. Unless we make certain that there is provision for the well-being of those children, we will not have achieved the goals of real welfare reform. No one in this debate who voted and supported this legislation has answered the question what about the children, what happens to them.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Sen. Santorum, you voted for this bill. Answer that question. What about the children?

SEN. RICK SANTORUM, (R) Pennsylvania: Well, I guess the better question, what about the children now, I mean, why do you think we’re doing welfare reform–because the current system is an absolute failure. Children are not better off today than they were 30 years ago. They have families that are disintegrating around them. In 1960, 5 percent of the children in this country were born out of wedlock. Now a third are born out of wedlock. Fathers are nowhere to be found in over 50 percent of welfare families.

We have, we have seen a disintegration of the family. We have seen as a result of that, a disintegration of neighborhoods where these poor children are growing up, the school systems declining. Drive-by shootings are rampant. What about the kids now? That’s the real question. That’s the reason for welfare reform. And the real question here is, as far as I see it, is whether we should provide for a better life for kids through one of two choices, and what the Senator from Illinois has just suggested is the choice should be that we should have guarantees of the federal government coming in and stepping in and taking care of every aspect of every child’s life. And what I believe is that we should have a welfare reform bill that provides and encourages family togetherness, that encourages parental responsibility, that provides for a safer neighborhood, that provides for values to be taught by mediating institutions. That’s why we have a provision in there that allows religious organizations and civic organizations to take more of an active lead in welfare reform.

What we want to do is build up the culture from the grassroots and by–and what we’ve done is by the government injecting themselves into every aspect of people’s lives, we have in a sense made all these other institutions, including the family, unnecessary and as a result, they have withered away. What about the kids is what this is all about.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Moseley-Braun, what’s your response to that, his critique that the current system is also a disaster for children?

SEN. CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: My first response is that in a democracy the government is all of us, and there is no question but we need to do better by giving people a way out of poverty. We need to provide incentives for family stability and to give people the ability to stay together and build stable and strong neighborhoods. But cutting off children, pushing them off the edge of the earth, saying at the age of six you may well wind up with no assistance whatsoever, is not the answer.

It is not appropriate, I think, and it’s certainly not good policy to experiment with the livelihood of babies who really don’t have any control over whether or not their parents have found a job or not. And that’s really the problem here. It goes too far in the direction of trying to achieve a goal without considering all of the consequences, foreseeable consequences. The Department of Health & Human Services tells us that 5 million children will be pushed into poverty at the end of a five-year term limit; 1.6 million right with the passage of this legislation will be pushed below poverty that weren’t there before. It seems to me that if we’re going to make policy in this area to achieve all of the laudable goals that my colleague talks about, we can do that without giving children the freedom to starve.

MARGARET WARNER: Mrs. Anderson, let me get your view of this now. From your hands-on experience in California, please be as specific as you can, what impact do you think this bill would have on children?

ELOISE ANDERSON, California Department of Social Sciences: (Sacramento) Well, I think one of the things that we have to be paying attention to is government is not a parent and that what we try to do is to say to the parent, you are responsible for your child and not the government, and the way that the Republicans tried to design the bill is to let parents loose into the mainstream so that they can do what other parents do, is to provide for them.

And what we have, and California has so long looked for is fairness, fairness between the working poor or the working low on the ladder and AFDC recipients. In California, I have more single mothers working than I have single mothers on AFDC. There’s something wrong with that when you coddle people on AFDC and you don’t give the same opportunities for people who are out there working every day. And I believe that government ought to get out of the way of parents parenting their children. And I believe that what we have been trying to do is allow AFDC parents to have the same expectations that we have about the other parent out here.

You know, they need to take care of their own children. The society needs to give a helping hand but not for long-term. There used to be a statement about helping people so they learn how to fish when it’s finished. I think this gets us on the way to helping parents to be able to take care of their children.

MARGARET WARNER: Bob Greenstein, where do you come down on this, on what impact this would have on children?

ROBERT GREENSTEIN, Welfare Analyst: You know, I listened to Sen. Santorum, and I listened to Eloise Anderson, and if the bill really did the things they say, everybody would be for it. We all agree the current system has problems. We all agree we need welfare reform. We need to move people from welfare to work. But look at what the bill actually does–not the political sound bites but the reality.

Last January, the President vetoed a bill that was found that it would increase the number of children in poverty by 1 and a half million. That bill had $59 billion in cuts in basic benefits for poor families. This bill has about $60 billion in cuts. You take Sen. Santorum said 30 years ago things were not as bad as today. Well, in the area of hunger they were worse. The Senator should read studies.

There was much more widespread hunger among children in this country in the 60’s. President Nixon led an effort to deal with that. What does this bill do? It takes $28 billion, half of all the cuts in the bill are in food stamps. Are they just from single parents who aren’t working? Hardly, that’s not where most of them come from. The average working family–Eloise talked about working people–the average working family loses $400 a year in food stamps under this bill, the average working poor family. What does that have to do with welfare reform? The average elderly widow who’s poor on food stamps gets a quarter of her food stamps taken away. Jobs?

The Congressional Budget Office says the bill is $12 billion short of what’s needed to provide the number of work spots that the bill envisions. States won’t have enough money under this bill to provide the work slots, and many will be forced to cut people off prematurely, without a work slot.

MARGARET WARNER: So what are you saying will happen to children of welfare parents?

ROBERT GREENSTEIN: It’s not just children of–children of welfare parents. It depends on the state and the economy. In some states, they’re going to be cut after a short period of time without a work slot. Time limit used to be, we give you a limited amount of cash and after that, you have to work. If you can’t find a job in the private sector, go do workfare. That’s not what it means in this bill. In this bill, time limit means a time limit on workfare too. And at the end of the time limit, if you can’t find a job in the private sector, there’s no workfare slot for you.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get Sen. Santorum to respond on that point.

SEN. RICK SANTORUM: Well, let me just say on that point that, No. 1, I mean, we have to understand that there are 50, at least 50 means-tested programs out there to help the poor, poor children. What we’re talking about, that we’re time-limiting is one program, one of the fifty such programs.

We don’t time limit Medicaid. We don’t time limit food stamps. We don’t time limit WIC. We don’t time limit school lunch. We don’t time limit any of the other–one program–cash assistance on what was AFDC, and what we, and the reason we do that, the reason we do that is because we want to concentrate the resources in these first five years, where mom is trying to turn their life around to get them the education and training and the child care.

I didn’t hear Bob talk about child care ,and the reason he didn’t is because we have over $5 billion more in child care dollars in this bill than under current law and over $1 and a half billion more than what the President even suggested. There’s plenty of money in here to get people to work and support families while they work, that is one of the reasons we’re so proud of this bill. We absolutely believe that unless you have a cut-off, and that’s what the President’s big argument is with this bill–he doesn’t want a time limit. He wants people to be able to after the five years, well, just sort of stay on because we don’t want to hurt the kids.

Well, the problem is, that’s the system today, and what people say is if there’s no penalty there, if there is no sanction, then people will just continue to stay on the program. It is tough love. It is the definition of tough love to say that we are going to give people and as Eloise said, set an expectation that we’re going to help people, but at some point in time, we expect them to go out and help themselves. No one is going to fall through the cracks here.

There are 49 other means-tested programs there to make sure that there’s health care and food and housing and a whole lot of other things for kids and families, but what we’re saying to mom is no more cash, no more cash after two years of education and training, after three years of government-subsidized work, you should have the ability, if you want to, to go out and find a job. And if you don’t, we provide a 20 percent exemption for states. They can take 20 percent of the people, who may be the most unemployable, and exempt them from that requirement. So we provide a window for those who may be in a bad unemployment area or whatever. So we provide plenty of flexibility for states to be able to deal with this problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me just let Bob Greenstein respond quickly, and I’ll get right to you.

ROBERT GREENSTEIN: A lot of this is just not right. This does not provide two years of education and training and then three years of a work slot. A state is allowed to do that, but there isn’t enough money in the bill for states to do it. The Congressional Budget Office has certified that. Many states are already heading with this kind of a structure to maybe two years.

Some people may not even get any work slot or any training during that two years, and then they can be taken off. And then there was a proposal to simply allow states, not require, allow states after the five years to at least provide vouchers like to pay the rent or clothing for children made destitute because their parents can’t find a job. And that was not in the bill. That was voted down by Sen. Santorum and his colleagues. He says there are 49 other programs. There are things like school lunches you get in school. There is not a single other program that provides either cash or payment for work. None of those other programs allow you to pay the rent.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Moseley-Braun, if the bill had included this voucher idea, which I gather the President also endorses, would you have been more comfortable with it?

SEN. CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: I must tell you I tried to get vouchers passed the first time we went through this drill, and it was defeated. It was defeated again yesterday. The point here is that this bill does not encourage state flexibility in that it denies–it says you cannot give non-food assistance, non cash assistance to families after the time limit has been reached, and so the 20 percent that my colleague refers to even as to the 20 percent flexibility that’s supposedly in there, the emergency fund, the fact is that that–counting that 20 percent, you still have a million and a half children pushed into poverty with the enactment of this legislation.


SEN. CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: And so I come back to the point, you know, all this focus on the parents, assume for a moment that the parents are irresponsible or they can’t find a job. I agree everybody can work, should work, but assume for a moment that it doesn’t happen, then what happens to the children, and this bill lets them fall through the cracks.

MARGARET WARNER: Mrs. Anderson, answer that question.

ELOISE ANDERSON: I think we have to step up to the fact that if a parent can’t find a job, they’re not disabled, they don’t want to work, isn’t that a child welfare issue? Shouldn’t we say what’s going on in this family, shouldn’t we take a look at the parenting issues here?

And what we do now in this system is that we say, oh, that’s not our problem right now and then when the child’s five, six, seven, years old, the child welfare system comes in and takes the child out where so much damage done that we can’t repair it. When you have a parent who doesn’t want to take care of their child, I think you have a very different set of issues, and this country needs to face that.

On the issue of whether we should get vouchers or not, you know, the states are free to give vouchers if they want to. This doesn’t all have to be federal funding. There are charitable organizations out there who can step in and do that. The federal government needs to get out of this work.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you all very much. I’m afraid we’ll have to leave it there.