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MARY ALICE WILLIAMS, anchor: Our top story: it sounds like a triumph. Three years after the most radical overhaul of the nation’s welfare system ever, the number of people on welfare has been cut in half. Today, 7.3 million Americans remain on welfare, down from more than 14 million when President Clinton took office. But it has not changed other factors that effectively keep people in poverty. Chris Roberts reports.
CHRIS ROBERTS: In Chicago this week, President Clinton proclaimed the success of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.
President BILL CLINTON: A big part of this is the decision that the American people, through their elected representatives, made to end welfare as we know it.
ROBERTS: He said there’s still work to be done and pledged new programs for job training, transportation, child care, and housing.
Pres. CLINTON: Let’s spend this money to develop the human capacity of our people. It will make the economy stronger, and we will all be better off.
ROBERTS: Janet Russell used to be on welfare, but now she’s happy to be working at a Marriott hotel in Maryland.
Ms. JANET RUSSELL (Marriott Hotel): When you don’t have money and you don’t have any income and you have to rely on the state, then people treat you differently.
ROBERTS: But Janet also highlights a problem with welfare reform. It doesn’t necessarily lift people out of poverty.
Ms. RUSSELL: I pretty much juggle from month to month — not enough for food, not enough for utilities, not enough for a couple of things.
ROBERTS: Janet’s problems are typical. A new report from The Urban Institute in Washington, DC, has found that, after leaving welfare, many people have jobs, but they’re still poor. The report’s author is Pamela Loprest.
Ms. PAMELA LOPREST (Urban Institute): The average wage is $6.60. You’re at about the poverty level for a family of three, about $13,000 a year.
ROBERTS: Loprest found that, among people who used to be on welfare, 57 percent worry about having enough money for food, 39 percent have been unable to pay housing bills, and 41 percent of adults and 25 percent of children lack medical insurance. Loprest says the priority of welfare reform is placing people in jobs, not ending poverty.
Ms. LOPREST: Right now, there’s a lot of desire to have welfare recipients work, and for some, that means kind of a punitive thing, “Well, we’re working, so they should work,” but for others, it’s a real, “Join the mainstream of America.” People are working; there’s kind of a status and dignity and self-sufficiency involved in that.
ROBERTS: Theologian Ron Sider isn’t satisfied with this kind of welfare reform.
Mr. RONALD SIDER (Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary): Well, it’s a good thing to get people off welfare. There have been incentives in the 1996 welfare bill that have moved us in the right direction. The tragedy is that the poverty level is not going down hardly at all.
ROBERTS: Over 35 million Americans live in poverty, and for Sider, this is an ethical problem.
Mr. SIDER: The Judeo-Christian heritage makes it very clear that caring for the poor is one of the top priorities of the God of the scriptures. Christians and Jews are blatantly defying what the Bible has to say when they allow that kind of poverty in the richest nation in human history.
ROBERTS: In the fall, Sider will launch what he calls the Generous Christians Campaign, hoping to mobilize churches against poverty.
Mr. SIDER: The Generous Christians prayer says, “Lord Jesus, teach my heart to share your love for the poor.” If a few million Christians would take that pledge and then live that out in moving from a quarter of a tithe to half and then a full tithe of 10 percent — and that would be very easy — that would not in any way drive middle-class Christians into poverty.
ROBERTS: All Janet Russell wants is a home and an education for her kids.
Ms. RUSSELL: I don’t think that the things that I want are that extravagant over anything anybody else wants.
ROBERTS: For many Americans, these are prosperous times. We live in an era of government surpluses, a booming stock market, and debates about tax cuts. But millions still live in poverty, and whether we can end welfare as we have known it as well as share the prosperity remains an open question. I’m Chris Roberts reporting.