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JAMES GALBRAITH The Welfare Disaster On July 31, the President announced he would sign a welfare bill. It was an act to end illusions. The smiles of Newt Gingrich, the stricken faces of Donna Shalala, Henry Cisneros and Leon Panetta told the story. So did the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “The Cabinet is against the bill. The pollsters are for it. This is a defining event of his Presidency.” So did the words of Richard Armey: “This is a Republican victory.” And of Bob Dole: “The first 100 days of the Dole Administration have begun, 97 days before the election.” The bill puts an end to Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the main federal program protecting poor children. Instead, each state will receive a block grant, 30 percent of which can be diverted to social serestablishes a two-year limit on welfare receipt, limits most lifetime benefits to five years, cuts benefits to unmarried teen-age parents, and reduces the block grants if recipients cannot find jobs. In additional moves, legal immigrants presently receiving food stamps and Supdropped from those programs \(their relaFuture legal immigrants become ineligible for federal welfare and social services until they become citizens. And unemployed workers who are not raising children can now get food stamps for a maximum of three months in every three years. That’s one month per year, if I read correctly. Sort of a Christmas bonus, you might say. This law is, in one word, savage. In promising to sign it, Clinton issued a long statement that was painful to read. He claimed that his vetoes of previous two previous bills had led to improvements in this one. In rare particulars this was true, but not overall. Among other things the new provisions on food stamps for the unemployed were much harsher than in the earlier versions. The President had vetoed those bills, partly because they would have terminated unemployed food stamp recipients without insisting that they first be offered a chance at workfare. The final bill does exactly the same thing. As for moving people toward work, a lead editorial in The New York Times fingered the AUGUST 16, 1996 lie in Clinton’s position: “The bill says it would require states to move at least 50 percent of welfare parents to work within two years of going on welfare. But the actual language exempts 43 states, covering 95 percent of welfare recipients…Also, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the bill is $12 billion short of what would be needed to hit its welfare-to-work targets.” Clinton of course said that he recognized the flaws in this bill, particularly those affecting legal immigrants and the unemployed, and would work to reverse them. But what leverage does he have now? It is one thing to veto, and veto, and veto again, bad legislation. It is quite another to get this Congress to pass a fresh extension of SSI, say, for poor or disabled immigrants. It is not as though Clinton’s political position was weak. With a commanding lead in the polls and an Override-proof minority in Congress, he was in position to hold off the Republicans on welfare for as long as he liked. Despite all of his defects, the American public was evidently beginning to trust his judgment. As Clinton’s political rebound clearly showed, the public likes a fight, admires a show of principle, and is prepared to think the worst of Newt Gingrich. Gingrich, however, had Clinton figured. Gingrich has no interest in a Dole Presidency; his future depends on Clinton’s reelection. What better way to help, than to send the President a welfare bill with cosmetic concessions, one last chance to escape a barrage of end-welfare-as-weknow-it Republican campaign ads? Clinton saw the gift and took it. Gingrich, the man who really ended welfare as we know it, was a gracious victor. “Working together to do something that is very good for America,” he said. What a team. Inside Clinton’s White House, the lines were clearly drawn on this issue. On one side was every single person, so far as I can tell, who was professionally competent or personally experienced on the issues of poverty, welfare, unemployment, immigration and children. On the other side were the political hacks, the spin-meisters, the ad-men, the image consultants who pretend to be policy experts. News accounts of the final meeting, at which the two sides faced off, revealed the flaw in Clinton’s Presidency: the very fact that these two groups, on this issue, had equal standing. Clinton sided with the hacks. The calamities now ahead are social and political. Very soon, we will be reading of the fiscal crisis in the cities and states, beginning already with New York, as they struggle to cope. In the next regional recessionperhaps in Texas, perhaps elsewherethe block grant money will run out. In the next national recession, the safety net that has existed for newly unemployed, divorced or abandoned women and their families since 1935 simply will not be there. It is true that conditions have changed since that program was started. In 1935, 40 percent of Americans still lived on farms, and could grow their own food. Equally, the dynamic inside the government is now very bad. Having folded on welfare, food stamps and SSI, Clinton can no longer credibly assert principle on anything else. When demands for draconian cuts to balance the budget are made again next year, where will he hide? When the privatization of Social Security itself comes up, as many signs suggest that it will, what will he do? The answer to the character question is not to be found, as it turns out, in the backwoods of Arkansas. It is right here, in the decision to sign the welfare bill, and everything that will follow. James K. Galbraith teaches at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas at Austin \([email protected] THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11