Reinvent welfare -- humanely

January 25, 1994|By Lynn Woolsey

IT'S time to end welfare as I knew it.

Twenty-five years ago I was a single, working mother, unable to provide for my three children, ages 1, 3 and 5.

I know what it is like to lie awake at night and worry about not having any health insurance. I know how hard it is to find good child care -- I had 13 different babysitters in one year.

I know what it is like to choose between paying the rent and buying new shoes.

Like so many American families, we turned to Aid to Families with Dependent Children. As the only former welfare mother ever to serve in Congress, I know firsthand the merits and faults of our welfare system. And I know we must create a fair and just system that would provide families with the tools they need to get off welfare and become self-sufficient.

Sadly, the ideas that seem to be gaining ground these days are misguided or worse.

Proposals like that of the social scientist Charles Murray -- which would abolish everything from food stamps to subsidized housing -- would starve families only to feed alarmist myths about welfare. Such brutal proposals would have devastated my family.

The denial of essential services would rip the safety net from under families in temporary need and burn the ladder to self-sufficiency for those trapped in long-term poverty.

Time limits on welfare benefits, the centerpiece of both Democratic and Republican proposals, would be just as damaging to families. While the purpose -- to move individuals off welfare and into the work force -- is laudable, a rigid approach is unworkable.

The recent proposal by Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts, to cut off benefits after 60 days for all able-bodied recipients who did not accept full-time community service jobs at less than the minimum wage, is a case in point.

Curtailing benefits without first reducing the need for assistance hurts children, who account for 70 percent of welfare recipients; perpetuates the cycle of poverty, and may force families to live on the streets.

My own vision of a just and fair welfare system is based on experience, not theory.

Here is what it would do:

* Establish federal job-training programs that would ensure self-sufficiency.

* Overhaul our child-support system by stiffening enforcement and guaranteeing that all families receive a minimum level of payment.

* Abolish financial penalties against two-parent families.

* Encourage welfare recipients to work by allowing them to keep more of their earnings and benefits.

* Provide a full range of support services like child care, health care and counseling, as well as qualified case management.

* Build partnerships of labor, business and government to create jobs that pay a living wage.

Make no mistake: welfare reform will cost money in the short term. But it will reap long-term results.

The Clinton administration wants a welfare plan that doesn't increase the deficit. I want a plan that works. We must craft a plan that both respects the budget and achieves our common goal for financial independence for all American families.

This debate is about what we value as a nation. I turned to welfare so I could take care of my children.

Now we must fix the welfare system to make sure all of our children are given the care they need.

Lynn Woolsey, Democrat of California, is a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

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