National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 12, 2003

Time for Congress to consider general welfare

For half a decade supporters of 1996’s welfare “reform” legislation, Democrats and Republicans alike claimed success. They pointed to the declining number of people receiving assistance -- “the welfare rolls” -- and declared success. Between 1996-2000 welfare caseloads dropped nearly 60 percent.

The Pyrrhic nature of that victory was revealed by the Census Department Sept. 3. The bottom line: Poverty is up. Between 2001 and 2002, an additional 1.34 million Americans, 600,000 of them children, were declared poor; 7 million American families live in poverty. Seven million.

In reality, the success or failure of welfare reform is not solely or even primarily based on how many people are on or off the rolls at any given time. That’s a false measure, more soundbite than social policy.

The real test is how many people escape poverty -- whether government-subsidized or the subsistence poverty an ill-educated single mother ekes out flipping hamburgers at $5.15 an hour. The 1996 welfare overhaul, it is now clear, traded the former for the latter.

The worst effects of the 1996 legislation were mitigated by the booming economy of that decade. Forced off the dole, former welfare recipients, whatever their skills, could find work servicing the needs of the rest of us who benefited from the boom.

Those days are over. The “jobless economic recovery” we read so much about these days hits those on the bottom economic rung the hardest -- those 7 million American families living in poverty.

So what to do? Two short-term palliative measures are on the table.

First, provide tax relief to the working poor. During the last-minute negotiations over the most recent Bush tax cut, working poor families -- those earning between $10,500 and $26,625, were excluded from any benefit. Under political pressure, the Senate subsequently approved a measure, supported by President Bush, to extend tax relief to the working poor parents of more than 12 million children.

The House is balking -- its Republican leadership claiming that the working poor aren’t entitled to tax relief because most pay no federal income tax. It’s a shoddy argument, ignoring the fact that the tax burden (payroll, sales, local property taxes and other fees) on the working poor is exponentially higher than that suffered by the wealthy who benefited most from the Bush tax slash.

Next, the infamous 1996 welfare legislation is up for reauthorization. Congress should listen to the church-based lobbyists who argue that real progress in fighting poverty requires a commitment to education and training; it should increase the daycare funding that provides the opportunity for a single parent to work or build skills outside the home; and it should allow states to extend medical and other benefits to the legal immigrants who were punitively removed from eligibility as a result of the 1996 legislation. (See related story.)

These steps are necessary, vital even, but not sufficient. There is a bigger picture.

In the midst of the Great Depression, the United States made a compact with the elderly: Senior citizens would receive a guaranteed income. Today, the Social Security system is sacrosanct, beloved by all. Those who question it risk stepping on the third rail of American politics.

It is not a perfect system, and those who depend solely on Social Security for retirement suffer poverty in great numbers. But the compact Franklin Roosevelt made with seniors, combined in the 1960s with health coverage through the Medicare program, has resulted in a poverty rate among seniors half that of our children.

We need to extend that compact to the rest of our society.

National Catholic Reporter, September 12, 2003

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