THE FOUR GOOD ROCKY MOVIES (SKIP ROCKY V, please) had a common plot element. Out of low or high self-esteem, the boxer isn't doing what he is called to do: train hard and have the "eye of the tiger." Revived midway through the movie by his wife's love or a friend's death, he gets in shape and eventually wins.
The nation of Israel had a similar problem of forgetfulness throughout the Bible. Nehemiah (chapter 9) is one of many books that notes how God performed miracles, but then "our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks." Stephen said the same thing in Acts (chapter 7), and those who could not handle the truth stoned him. Only the work of the Holy Spirit could revive Israel's Rockys.
And what about us? Right after the 9/11 disaster Americans of all persuasions knew we were in a war. Now, 31 months later, much is forgotten. Democrats and some Republicans bloviate about the Patriot Act, as if we lived in peaceful times. In the same breath we hear complaints that the Bush administration is guilty for underestimating the terrorist threat before 9/11 and overestimating it ever since.
The current welfare-reform gridlock represents another case of misplaced memory. I spent 20 months on leave from my teaching responsibilities in 1995-1996, commuting to Washington and pushing for that rarest of all Beltway items, legislation that did not follow the laws of political entropy. I saw close-up how solons were desperate for some way to stop the upward march of welfare's raw numbers. I also saw, just a mile from the White House, the raw despair among those merely enabled to stay in poverty for a lifetime.
Semi-miraculously, a strong welfare-reform measure made it through a Congress energized by the sensational GOP triumphs of November 1994; Bill Clinton, seeking
reelection, signed the bill. Groups like the Urban Institute and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities wailed: Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund was typical in her prediction that welfare reform "will hurt and impoverish millions of American children." Even the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, usually level-headed, denounced welfare reform as "the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction."
Eight years later, even those with short memories should be able to look at stats: welfare rolls down more than 60 percent since 1996, and not jumping during recession; a 20 percent decline in poverty among children of single moms, and a greater decline in black child poverty; a 50 percent rise in the employment rate for poor single moms. Almost every study shows great improvement.
One criticism of the 1996 welfare reform is valid: It propelled single moms into the work force but not into marriage. Marriage should be the long-term goal, because only a responsible husband can provide the true safety net that a mother needs. As columnist Michael J. McManus has pointed out, many single moms come close: One study of 4,700 new and unwed parents in inner cities found that at the birth of their child half were living together, another quarter were romantically involved, and four out of five mothers and fathers were considering marriage. But since only 15 percent do marry, the key question is: Why not more?
It's not that the dads are deadbeats: Some 82 percent of the fathers in that "Fragile Families" study were employed, earning $17,500 on average, and only 2 percent had hit or slapped the mother. If that 15 percent figure for marriage could become 50 percent or more, the biggest offensive ever in our continuing wars on poverty would be underway. The innovation in this year's welfare-reform bill is a "Healthy Marriage Initiative" that could help couples to commit and could help to save young marriages in trouble.
But a new initiative might be asking for too much: If we could just remind old dogs of old tricks, we'd be a step up. Sadly, Senate Democratic leaders are now holding welfare reform hostage as they push for an increase in the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.00 an hour. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on whether the improvement in wages for some would outweigh the declining job prospects for others, especially inner-city teenagers. The real issue is: Can we remember the crises of 1996 and 2001 and be grateful for improvement, or is Congress auditioning for Rocky VI?