Welfare Reform?

On March 21, 1995, on the floor of the House of Representatives, Representative Bill Archer, Republican from Texas, gave a speech in favor of a set of drastic measures summarized in a bill, H. R. 4, along with other Republicans and Democrats. The bill passed the Republican-dominated House on March 24, 1995, by a vote of 234 to 199. A Senate version was passed in December, but in January, 1996, President Clinton vetoed it because it “cut too deeply into benefits.”

The speech given by Representative Bill Archer was eloquent, with some good statistical data. He explained the three principles behind H. R. 4, they are:

“Personal responsibility, work, and returning power over welfare to our States and communities where the needy can be helped in the most efficient way.” (Archer, 318)

He was strongly agreed with the drastic measures in H. R. 4. He claimed that “The time has come to replace this failed system with a new system that uplifts our Nation’s poor, …… It represents a historic shift, long overdue.” (Archer, 319)

However, there is a fundamental flaw in the logic of his analysis. If our economy seems to require about 6% “structural” unemployment to keep wage demands and inflation in check (and Wall Street happy), who is going to volunteer to turn in their jobs so that all of these welfare folk can get busy?

Welfare needed reforming. Its problems have been well documented and I won’t waste my wind. The largest problem to my mind has been the dependancy that sets in and robs many of those participating in the system of any motivation to do better. But welfare had many successes, too, the hidden kind. A full stomach. A roof over the head. The kinds of successes that are hard to script a headline around.

So we plan to head back to the states, assured that they will do a better job. But are fifty bureaucracies better than one? And didn’t they already have a substantial role in the system that everyone has decried as a failure? Oh, I know, it was just some of these stupid Federal mandates that made them do foolish things, insisted that they meet the needs of their communities. We lose the economies of scale that a centralized system brings. Can you imagine fifty presses firing up across the country to print food stamps, each looking suspiciously like civil war currency? The idea that fifty systems are inherently better than one stands logic on its own head.

So we have fifty systems, each (we are assured) with the best interest of its citizens at heart. Not that we are going to do anything to attract another state’s citizens, mind you. No, better to give them some of our problems – I mean, citizens, to be taken care of over THERE. How do we encourage them – get tough. How do we attract them – let’s not find out. So who can get tougher? Who’s the toughest? Like neighborhood bullies, each vying to keep his or her turf cleared of undesirables, the states will sink to the lowest common denominator permissible under law – yes, that’s Federal law.

And legal immigrants, no matter whether they’ve paid their taxes, or served in the military, or paid their dues. Safety net, hah! Better fill out that citizenship application today! Haven’t met the residency requirements? Better stay employed! Lost your job? Better go back home. Have a nice swim!

The real tragedy of all of this is what we create with such policies – desperation. Being a parent, I know how I would react if my children were hungry and I had few options. The legality of behavior wouldn’t matter much. Sell drugs, my body, or steal. What else could I do? We are creating predators with no sense of remorse. They are doing the right thing, because it puts food in the mouths of their children. Little else matters. Desperation is a poor corner to be painted into and we have too many corners, too many ghettoes, too many holes where cornered people, like animals, will turn and attack.

It does no good to demand that people get jobs when there are none available.

It does no good to demand that mothers get a job when the cost of day care vastly exceeds the wages they may receive.

It does no good to insist that they participate in drug treatment programs when all such programs in their community are booked for months.

It DOES make sense to help them train for a good job so that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel.

It DOES make sense to provide them with medical and dental care so that when they take a “no/low benefit” job they don’t lose this protection.

It DOES make sense to encourage parents to take responsibility for the children they bring into the world. This includes trying to determine the father and getting him involved in caring for the children. This includes prosecution of statutory rape, but instead of compounding the problem by sending dad to prison, send him to work – hard work – to support his child.

It DOES make sense to have young mothers live at home, except when that home is dysfunctional. Then, group homes with job training, day care, drug treatment/resistance education, and a sense of community support are the best approach.

It DOES make sense to have family planning and sex education programs, starting at an early age. It does make sense to insure that these kids have access to birth control when they need it most. It does make sense to provide them with counseling and yes, abortion services when having a child is not in the best interest of mother OR child.

If there are no jobs, if there is a need for a pool of unemployed, then make government, at whatever level, the employer of last resort. Get some job experience into them for the government dollars paid out, but don’t try to continue the myth that there are jobs for all that want them AND those we demand go to work to salve our personal work ethic.

One of the cruelest moments in Archer’s argument was the denial of vouchers for medicine, school supplies, and diapers for those children whose parents had been cut off from benefits. Taking care of things the right way, the best way, is not the cheapest way. We as taxpayers are tired of paying for endless poverty, but I think we would be willing to pay a little more for programs that work, that solve problems instead of perpetuating or accelerating them.

This is a wealthy country – we waste more in a day than it would take to feed, clothe, and house all of America’s children. We need to prove to ourselves and the world that our hearts are not hardened by the sight of the poor, but that our eyes are open to the solutions that work and the potential that exists.

In one word, Bill Archer was wrong. We do need a welfare reform, but we do not want to see something so drastic like H. R. 4, which would destroy what we already have had and done. I am glad that President Clinton vetoed it.

Works Cited

Archer, Bill. “Welfare Reform: Pro” Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. Ed. Beherens, Laurence and Rosen, J. Leonard. 6th Edition. Longman


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