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Welfare's last stand

National | "Stand for Children" an early shot in the next welfare war

Issue: "Future of health care," June 22, 1996

Franco Pagnanelli, 28, stood on the grassy slope in front of the Washington Monument with a clear message for all to see. Holding a picture of an aborted baby, Mr. Pagnanelli said he'd come to the "Stand for Children" march on the nation's capital to speak for those children who truly lack a voice: the unborn. Curiously, however, many in the crowd of "children's rights" advocates seemed to frown on his views. "That's not for children!" one angry passerby said in response to Mr. Pagnanelli's grim sign. "You like to be hateful," said another.

The episode illustrates clearly the stark ideological bent that permeated the June 1 rally of nearly 200,000 people at Washington's Lincoln Memorial. Even as participants railed at Mr. Pagnanelli about standing for the unborn, rally organizer Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund and long-time friend of First Lady Hillary Clinton, told the gathering: "We stand today at the Lincoln Memorial as an American family and an American community to commit ourselves to putting our children first."

So much hangs on the definition of "children" and what it means to put them "first": CDF and its mainly liberal rally sponsors talk much about the very real plight of inner-city children, but say nothing of the plight of inner-womb children. Among the event's sponsors were groups such as Planned Parenthood of America, the National Organization for Women, Americans for Democratic Action, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, Greenpeace, the National Rainbow Coalition, and Zero Population Growth. Many of these groups chose to spend taypayers' dollars to support a rally where the underlying message was partisan liberal. According to the Heritage Foundation, more than 100 of the endorsing groups had received nearly $392 million in government funds in fiscal year 1993-1994.

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"Time and time again the Children's Defense Fund has missed the mark on the greatest crisis facing our children-family breakdown," said Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council. "For them, every problem is an economic one, explained not in the loss of values or loving homes, but in dollars and cents. The last 30 years has shown clearly the failure of these approaches."

But even failed approaches-like the multi-billion-dollar behemoth welfare system-have their defenders. With another Republican welfare reform bill meandering through Congress, CDF this time has struck early. A 200,000-strong rally like this would have been unlikely last October, when CDF and other opponents of welfare reform were back on their heels. As the Senate neared passage of legislation that would reform the welfare system by, among other things, ending the federal entitlement, limiting the rate of spending growth, and block-granting much of the program to the states, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) lashed out at the lack of opposition from groups like CDF.

"There are very few advocacy groups outside. You can stand where I stand and look straight out at the Supreme Court, not a person in between that view," Sen. Moynihan had lamented in a speech on the Senate floor. "No one of those flaunted, vaunted advocacy groups forever protecting the interests of the children and the helpless and the homeless and the what-you-will."

Weeks later at a news conference, Ms. Edelman pleaded battle fatigue in answering the senator's criticism. "This is a 100-front war. Everything is on the verge of being dismantled. We couldn't possibly have worked harder."

But defenders of the welfare status quo were helped by insiders like Mrs. Clinton and cabinet member Donna Shalala-both former CDF board members. Ms. Shalala's Department of Health and Human Services was instrumental in turning President Clinton's long-professed support for welfare reform into a veto. Despite an HHS report, which Ms. Shalala acknowledged was presented to Mr. Clinton, on the supposed impact of the legislation, the president continued in his support for the bill. A month and a half later, the report was mysteriously leaked to The Los Angeles Times, and Sen. Moynihan helped generate even more publicity for the report-all the while insisting the president never knew about it: "Now that this information is available, the president ...is free to withdraw his support" for the bill. He did and the legislation was vetoed.

Back at the CDF rally, under a tent near the Washington monument, SMYAL, the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth passed out literature on homophobia. One rally participant held a sign reading, "All children are born liberal, only the blessed stay that way." Others wore T-shirts saying, "Fight the Right."

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