Attacking the Poor Instead of Poverty

December 26, 1993|By RUTH CONNIFF

MADISON, WISCONSIN — Madison, Wisconsin. -- Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson beat Bill Clinton to the punch this month when he signed a bill to abolish welfare. This new ''Work Not Welfare'' law puts into practice Mr. Clinton's campaign promise to limit welfare benefits to two years, and goes even further: Wisconsin will scrap Aid to Families with Dependent Children entirely by 1999.

But what will happen to the poor when there is no more safety net? The truth is, no one knows. That hasn't slowed Governor Thompson, who vetoed provisions for job creation and health care for the poor once AFDC is abolished. That leaves the state facing a void when the current system expires. But ''welfare as we know it'' will be gone.

Politicians are acting as if by doing away with welfare they can outlaw poverty. According to the current political wisdom, taxpayers are fed up with spending money on the poor. So instead of attacking the root causes of poverty, Democrats as well as Republicans attack welfare.

But the poor will still be with us in 1999. And while it is easier to attack the poor than it is to do something about poverty, in the long run, welfare reform experiments based on this kind of thinking are a proven failure, in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Under the 1988 Family Support Act, the federal government promised $6 billion to help states provide day care, education and health insurance to get people off welfare and into jobs. But when Congress only appropriated $1 billion, cash-strapped states kicked families off the welfare rolls without providing the promised support. It was cheaper and easier for states to treat poverty as an attitude problem, and cut benefits in the guise of doing something to ''empower'' the poor.

In Wisconsin, Governor Thompson enacted a series of welfare reforms that exacerbated the problems of poor people. The ''Learnfare'' program cut off AFDC funding to families if their kids missed too many days of school. The program was a disaster. It did nothing to solve the problems that contribute to truancy, and in a number of cases families lost their AFDC benefits for months because of bureaucratic errors.

In 1989, a federal judge issued an injunction against the Learnfare program, citing violations of due process and hundreds of instances in which families were sanctioned without good cause. Poor people ''should not be made homeless and hungry in the name of social experimentation,'' he wrote.

Welfare-reform programs have been quick to rescind poverty-level AFDC benefits, but slow to provide the supports that would make it possible for people to pull themselves out of poverty.

Under Governor Thompson's new ''Work Not Welfare'' initiative, the state is supposed to provide job training and child care to help welfare recipients get into the work force. But there are already long waiting lists for those services. And recently, the Thompson administration lost a major lawsuit to a group of welfare mothers participating in another welfare-reform bTC experiment, who pointed out that the state never provided the day care it promised.

President Clinton promises that his plan to end welfare will provide new jobs, training, transportation and child care to poor people. But the administration also promises that this massive new social program will cost nothing, claiming it will pay for itself through cuts in current programs. That's absurd. We can't solve the problems of poverty and unemployment in this country by cutting spending. We can, however, simply cut off welfare -- poverty and unemployment be damned. That's what they're doing in Wisconsin, and that's what is likely to result from the Clinton program. For poor people, the results will be dire.

What's the answer? Decent wages and health-care benefits for the working poor, quality child care and job training would help people get off welfare. All of these will cost money -- that's the rub.

It's not enough to blame people for being unemployed; we need to see to it that there are jobs available -- no small task in our current economy. In the meantime, it would be only wise, and humane, not to strand a whole class of people in ever more hopeless circumstances.

Neither Tommy Thompson nor Bill Clinton will eliminate poverty by cutting off public aid. They will just make poverty more painful.

Ruth Conniff is associate editor of The Progressive magazine.

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