Clinton urgedto spurn the poor

The President is tempted to slash welfare to win votes, reports John Carlin
Click to follow
President Clinton has a problem. In the election campaign of 1992 he promised "to end welfare as we know it". Before the end of the 1996 election campaign the Republicans are going to land a bill on his desk which would do just that. It is the most drastic assault on the US welfare system since Franklin Delano Roosevelt invented the social safety net, the New Deal, in 1935.

Mr Clinton agrees with the New York Times that the bill is "odious" and "offensive". His problem is that he wants to win the November election and if he vetoes the bill he will be handing his opponent, Bob Dole, a stick with which to beat him. Mr Clinton's pollsters tell him that most voters believe that benefits to the poor must be cut.

The ladies of Luther Place have a problem too. Some are homeless, some are addicted to drugs, some are mentally ill, some have been abused by their men, some have been rejected by their families. Some are all of the above. They would like to be able to abandon their dependence on the good people of Luther Place Memorial Church, a shelter and rehabilitation centre 10 minutes' walk from the White House, and stand once more on their own feet. They would like to reclaim their children and find a place they can call home.

But even on the off-chance that they succeed, they will need the government to help them. Unfortunately for the ladies, Mr Clinton's problem and theirs run at cross purposes. If he vetoes the bill he might lose some votes. But they will gain a little more incentive in their battle to rejoin society. If Mr Clinton signs the bill he might win some votes, but the ladies might then wonder whether rehabilitation is worth the effort.

The bill, as broadly agreed last week by the Republican-led Senate and House of Representatives, contemplates reducing elegibility for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the main welfare benefit programme, to a life-time limit of five years; obliging heads of families to find work within two years or risk losing benefits and reducing food stamps by an average of $600 (pounds 400) for families earning less than $6,300 a year.

A calculation widely made is that the bill will drive a million children into poverty because the heads of families, usually single mothers, will no longer be able to provide for them. Many more will be knocking at the door to join the ladies of Luther Place.

"The people who make those laws don't realise how hard life is when you fall below a certain line," said Mark Ortmeier, the secretary at Luther Place. "They don't realise how hard it is to get a job when you can't type a resume, when you can't wear the right attire at an interview, when you haven't got a minimum level of skill. And even if you do succeed in getting a job at McDonald's, if you have kids you need income beyond that to feed them and keep them warm in winter."

Newt Gingrich, the prime mover behind the proposed bill, sees things differently. "We are committed to reform welfare," the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives explains, "because what we are doing to the poor in America is destructive and immoral." By which he means, in a favourite metaphor, that the welfare system gives people fish, instead of teaching them to fish.

It was curious to hear him say last week that he did not really care too much whether Mr Clinton signed the bill or vetoed it. "I believe that we win from this point on, no matter what happens," he said. He predicted Mr Clinton would sign. "That's good, and it saves $60bn over six years," he said. "If, on the other hand ... he decides to veto it, I think the country will understand just how far to the left his commitments are, and how impossible it is to reform the government with him as President."

Mr Clinton has yet to state on which side he means to fall, but in recent days he has indicated that a tweak or two of the bill's provisions would encourage him to sign. Which prompted E J Dionne, a columnist for the Washington Post, to ask: "Doesn't a president who is 20 points ahead in the polls have at least a little room for courage?"

Pastor John Steinbruck, the minister at Luther Place, said: "This nation has as its symbol the Statue of Liberty, with the message carved at its base 'give me your poor, your homeless, your huddled masses'. But here we are now in this damn country, the richest in history, and we've forgotten all that. They say the system has failed, that welfare is some kind of narcotic, an addiction; that everybody's being supported. That's crap. The options are not there any more. What's the alternative in a country that's downsizing, where the wages for the poor fall as the income of the rich goes up?"

Rev Graylan Scott Ellis-Hagler was one of one 55 Washington ministers who were arrested on Capitol Hill last year for demonstrating over-zealously against the Republicans' welfare plans. "What do you mean by crushing my people," they intoned inside the Senate building, quoting Isaiah, "by grinding the face of the poor?" Last week Rev Hagler had his answer. A group of Republican grandees met to propose that Bob Dole should inject some life into his election campaign by promising a dramatic tax cut.

"The bill is built on greed," Rev Hagler said. "What Newt and co are really saying is 'If we penalise poor folk, if we make these savings, we'll be able to pay less to the public coffers,' which is the equation of greed and not the common good, which is unpatriotic."

But Rev Hagler also knows that it is unpatriotic to question what he calls "the American myth of opportunity, even if opportunities come thick and fast if you're rich but are thin on the ground if you're poor".

Yet if Mr Clinton passes the bill, Rev Hagler believes, the rich will rue the consequences, too. "It is not only callous, it is stupid. It will exacerbate crime and violence. If parents have families to feed they will do so by any means necessary. It's clear as day that you can't force people off the welfare rolls and not have a criminal explosion."

It is as clear as day to Mr Clinton also. But he does want to win that election.