Welfare rights, wrongs

June 22, 1994|By Derrick Z. Jackson

WELFARE reform might work if we reformed the definition of welfare. The only welfare story that you are conditioned to understand is the one featuring a sad-sack, illiterate mother in a ramshackle apartment with illegitimate children on the right, illegitimate children on the left and an illegitimate infant screaming in her lap.

Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told Time magazine, "Today everyone recognizes that dealing with births out of wedlock is the central issue of welfare reform, so much so that the president's draft plan makes dealing with illegitimacy the No. 1 priority."

President Clinton's recently released plan gives current welfare recipients two years to find a job or lose their benefits. His plan is so dehumanizing at face value that it represents playing to the hyenas. Once again, America shows no shame at cleaning the bones of easy prey.

Our society assumes that young adults with no children need four years of full-time college credits to compete for jobs with meaning. To demand that a single mother who has diapers on her mind train in half the time for the same job market is just plain sick. That is, if we are under the delusion that she should share in the same American dream.

More likely, these women are being duped and dumped. We scream individual achievement at them, but it is difficult to see how -- when you consider that many college graduates are now flipping burgers -- they will learn in two years anything but skills for low-wage and part-time jobs.

In the past decade, the value in real dollars of the minimum wage dropped 31 percent. The New Republic recently reported that for the federal minimum wage to have the same purchasing power as it had in the 1970s, it would have to be $5.42 an hour rather than its current $4.25. But Clinton has not matched his concrete Two Years or Bust plan with a Higher Wages or Bust plan for industries in underdeveloped areas.

This means that many mothers will be forced into taking two jobs to pay for child care and health insurance. An absent working mother is preferable to an ever-present welfare mother, but that still deprives Johnny and Jane of nurturing and leadership at home when they need to be told to do homework, stop watching garbage television and use birth control.

It is classic that a government run mainly by men would impose Draconian measures on women, who, no matter how lazy and ignorant you wish to label them, are the gender raising the children. Nonsupporting fathers face no threat to get job training or risk being consigned to labor camps.

The punishing choices confronting welfare mothers is underscored by the lack of pressure to reform welfare for the rich. In the new book "America: Who Really Pays the Taxes?" Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Donald Bartlett and James Steele wrote that tax breaks for corporations have increased so dramatically in the past 40 years that they deprive the Treasury of $250 billion a year. That is nearly 11 times the $23 billion given out in our principal welfare program for the poor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Yet Clinton collapsed at the slightest protest from life insurance companies, casino operators and wealthy homeowners to help pay for his $9.3 billon reform. He did not call for any new taxes. His program will be funded largely by other social service cuts.

There is a problem with babies having babies. Delinquent fathers should be hunted down for payments. Women and men who continue to have babies after going on welfare should not expect increased benefits. Welfare mothers should be directed toward work, but throwing them off welfare without a firm commitment to job growth, universal health insurance and child care that is affordable and after hours punishes their children. Clinton's reform originally called for $3.5 billion in child care support. Now he wants only $1.5 billion.

Welfare reform is not a trivial issue. But in relative terms, it is tinkering. Reform as we now know it merely has different sectors of the poor playing crabs in the barrel and the rest of America delighting in punishing them. All the while, Clinton is keeping the promise he made in his 1992 nomination speech not to soak the rich. Not only have the rich not been soaked, but they also remain unstained on welfare.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a columnist for Boston Globe.

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