On the Backs of the Poor

November 11, 1994|By RHONDA WILLIAMS

COLLEGE PARK — College Park. -- There was one clear loser in this election season: welfare reform. Many Republicans won, some Democrats won, but the poor lost in virtually every race.

Both parties followed a simple election strategy: Whoever dies with the most welfare cadavers wins. Because they didn't deliver on President Clinton's promise to ''end welfare as we know it,'' the Democrats escalated their rhetoric to assure voters that they can still do the job. Even long-term liberals like Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts jumped on the bandwagon, promising to put welfare recipients to work.

Democrats can never outbid Republicans in fighting the welfare menace. President Clinton wants a two-year limit on benefits, but Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., wants to abolish young mothers' eligibility for welfare altogether. Most reform plans include some form of job training, but John Ashcroft, a Republican elected to the Senate from Missouri Tuesday, and the re-elected Rep. David M. McIntosh, R-Ind., even want to limit education expenditures for welfare recipients.

Politicians have created an imaginary legion of shiftless mothers who don't want to work. They further pretend that the opportunity gap between those with higher education and those without is not widening. But their fantasy ends at the job market: How many employers today are willing to hire people with only a high school diploma and pay them enough to cover health care and child care?

The candidates' meanness is only rivaled by the electorate's collective callousness toward the poor. America is scared and stressed, beset by relentless corporate downsizing, declining median household incomes, stagnant wages, and a growing poverty rate. And so, from all walks of life, we line up before our local minicams to vent our frustrations at those who neither manage nor monopolize corporate America.

The line runs something like this: ''Why should those women get to be at home with their kids when my wife and I have to hustle from paycheck to paycheck just to make ends meet, and still hardly get to see the kids or each other? They should be out there flipping burgers, competing with the rest of us struggling to make ends meet.''

We moralize about those who have less, sure that somehow -- as they spend their days negotiating the welfare bureaucracy, trapped in decaying neighborhoods and dodging a crossfire of bullets -- they are getting away with something. Americans are growing more comfortable with the notion that people on welfare are not like us, that they are not citizens but betrayers of the nation, uncommitted to progress.

The madness is that we have stopped trying to imagine that we might all deserve better. Richard Nixon -- hardly a liberal -- once considered a guaranteed minimum income for all families. Head Start has proved itself to both parties as an invaluable investment in the education of poor children, and still we refuse to fully fund it. Western European governments give significantly more support to poor families, and as a result very few citizens live in the kind of abject poverty rampant in American inner cities.

No matter which candidates and parties won or lost, the viciousness of campaign rhetoric aimed at our poorest and most vulnerable citizens sets a frightening tone for the discussions of welfare reform likely to occur in the next Congress. Unfortunately, the spurious logic of incumbents and challengers alike practically guarantees not a reasoned policy debate but a slugfest of lies and prejudice.

There was a time when politicians won office by offering visions of a New Deal or a Great Society. Now they win by heaping society's problems on the backs of the poor. I can hardly wait for 1996.

Rhonda M. Williams is a political economist who teaches in the Afro-American Studies Program at the University of Maryland.

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