Congressional conservatives thought they had won the war for welfare reform last year. This year, however, they face new assaults from an aggressive Department of Labor and from a liberal bill that whooshed through the Senate and is now wading through the House of Representatives.
The 1996 law required welfare recipients to work in exchange for benefits. States were to start by requiring 25 percent of those on welfare to begin working, with an increase to 50 percent by the the turn of the century.
Officials at the Department of Labor, however, decided that those on the workfare program must be treated as regular employees, a change that essentially raises their pay to nearly four times the minimum wage. "The effective wage rate for an average welfare mother with two children with AFDC, food stamps and Medicaid benefits would be $18.30 an hour," says U.S. Rep. Jim Talent (R-Mo.).
Mr. Talent, one of the Republican architects of last year's welfare law, is defending it loudly as the Clinton administration attempts to pick it apart administratively. "People are not going to be surprised to find out that welfare bureaucrats and liberals are trying to hijack welfare reform and turn it into an expansion of the existing welfare state," Mr. Talent told WORLD.
While Labor is attempting to change the intent of the law, the Senate's Budget Reconciliation Act would "implement massive, and retrograde, changes in welfare," says Robert Rector, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "The Senate bill represents the most decisive liberal victory in welfare policy in 30 years," he says.
The bill, according to Mr. Rector, would increase welfare spending, outlaw "Reagan-style workfare," and eliminate most of the regulations requiring welfare recipients to work.
The liberals' "Welfare to Work" program would override much of last year's welfare reform. Conservatives are attempting to defend the reform effort by writing restraints into this year's budget. Mr. Rector thinks Mr. Clinton will win on some points, but Mr. Talent is more optimistic about the outcome, if not the difficulty in achieving it.
"If we can't win this fight, we can't win any fight," Mr. Talent says. "We're in this position to pass this bill that will result in a balanced budget ... with tax relief for the American people, on a bipartisan basis. We're in this position because we have won the philosophical fight."
Unions and liberals are the culprits in the dismantling of welfare reform, Mr. Rector says. "Liberals actually believe that welfare is good for people. Therefore, the more you spend on people, the better off they're going to be. That happens to be a big lie."
Mr. Rector notes that "welfare dependence is incredibly destructive to children. The longer a family stays on welfare, the less likely the child is to succeed as an adult. Welfare subsidizes divorce and illegitimacy, which are the two single most destructive things that you could do to a child's life. The current welfare system is a system of organized, heavily funded child abuse where we're spending close to $200 billion a year to destroy American families. Changing that system is the only thing that we can do to help."
Families need a system that encourages excellence, Mr. Rector says, not one that rewards promiscuity, illegitimate children, and the wasting of their lives dependent on welfare. Last year's law was a move in that direction. "If you do that, you can drop the welfare caseload by as much as 40 percent in a single year," he says. "Most of the people who are on welfare don't need to be there, and if you make them earn their benefits, they will say goodbye to you very quickly."
That 40 percent who stay off or get off welfare because of work requirements will either find a job or return to their families, a result that ultimately works for the good of the nation, Mr. Rector says. "Family and friends are actually better able to manifest social control than the government is. If you're relying on Mom, and Mom is having to fork out to support you, Mom is probably going to control the young girl's behavior better than the welfare department."
The United States has spent $6.5 trillion in its war on poverty. About 40 percent of that-more than $2 trillion-has gone to blacks, whose families have suffered the greatest harm in the process, Rector says. "When we started out, 75 percent of black children were born inside of marriage. Now that figure has fallen to 30 percent. The welfare system has been a great exercise in liberal social engineering conducted disproportionately on black families, and as a result, has virtually destroyed the black family in the United States.
"This is not merely a black issue. The out-of- wedlock birthrate among whites is now 25 percent. The white family is now teetering on the same precipice of collapse on which the black family did in the early '70s."
It appears that a liberal tide is sweeping Washington, and many Republicans are cowering, fearful of unions and Mr. Clinton. To understand Mr. Clinton's hypocrisy, Mr. Rector says, you need only look to the campaign of 1996, when Mr. Clinton praised the cutting-edge approach of welfare reform in Wisconsin under the leadership of Gov. Tommy Thompson. Now, Mr. Clinton's proposals will outlaw the very things he praised. He "seems to be able to outmaneuver the conservatives. The man never tells the truth about anything, and the Republicans really do not seem to be able to grapple with that, and to get the better of him," Mr. Rector pessimistically points out.
Congressman Talent, who believes the issue won't be settled until the end of the fiscal year in September, welcomes the August recess as a time to wage his campaign to salvage last year's reform. If Mr. Clinton "wants people on community service to get more in terms of benefits and protections than a person doing an equivalent private sector job, I'd be happy to fight that. That's exactly what is wrong with the existing welfare system."