reform that would include sending illegitimate children to state orphanages. The idea, she said, was ``unbelievable and absurd''.
Republicans may come to regret the reference to orphanages in their proposed reform bill. Its associations are already proving a gift to the liberal opposition. Hence the First Lady's remarks, as well as this, from Democrat whip David Bonior last week: ``We are not for going back to Dickensian orphanages. We are not for taking babies away from their mothers.''
But the Democrats will not be able to sustain the distraction for long. When the Republicans take control of Congress in January, in the wake of their mid-term election triumph last month, welfare will go to the top of the agenda. This intention was signalled first in the ``Contract with America'', published before the election by the incoming House Speaker, Newt Gingrich. It promised action in 10 policy areas within 100 days, and welfare reform was number three.
Details have leaked of the proposed reform bill. With or without orphanages, it is a text to challenge the social legacies of Lyndon Johnson and even Franklin Roosevelt.
``This is far more radical than anything we have seen in the past and goes well beyond what has conventionally been thought of as welfare reform,'' suggests David Super of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which last week warned that the plan would deny benefits to five million children currently receiving them. The New York Times called it a ``grotesque assault on the poor''. Citing the threat to disadvantaged children, it declared: ``That is not reform. That is carnage.''
The Republican plan is biased - deliberately - against children born out of wedlock. Benefits
traditionally allocated to single mothers would automatically be suspended for those aged under 18. Older mothers who could not legally prove the identity of the child's father would also be denied payments; no single mother would be eligible for direct welfare support for longer than two years.
The savings from these cuts would help pay for the construction of the orphanages, for state-sponsored adoption programmes and for communal homes for those mothers and children otherwise unable to survive.
The Republicans are proposing going further, by reneging on the undertaking that is fundamental to a welfare system as traditionally understood: that once a person becomes eligible for help, help shall be given. This they would do by setting an annual ceiling on federal funding of all the main welfare programmes, including direct dole payments, school lunches and food stamps. In other words, welfare would be distributed on a first-come first-served basis. If the money runs out before the end of the year -or before you get to the head of the queue - then tough luck. At the same time the Republicans are brazenly refusing to cut any of the federally-funded supports which benefit the middle classes and the rich, such as Medicare for the elderly and pensions. On the contrary, included in the Gingrich contract are promises of a $500-per-child annual tax credit for traditional two-parent families as well as a 50 per cent reduction in capital gains tax on unearned income, three-quarters of which would benefit people earning more than $100,000 (pounds 65,000) a year.
How do they have the nerve? Partly, the answer lies in the personality of Mr Gingrich, who revels in exploring the limits of the acceptable. More important, however, are his political calculations. Voters want change. Thus in 1992, Bill Clinton vowed to ``end welfare as we know it'' and when, 17 months after his inauguration, he proposed only limited reforms, he was considered not to have gone far enough. All the more damagingly, voters see a causal link between welfare, the collapse of the family unit and high levels of crime, especially in cities. Hence, in large measure, last month's election result.
Republicans point to academic support for their views. A chief adviser to the party is Robert Rector of the right-wing Heritage Foundation. Borrowing from the writings of Charles Murray, he asserts that relieving the poor from the ``addiction'' of state assistance will, in the long run, save them. ``If you give people large amounts of things unconditionally, you destroy their moral fabric and you do the reverse of what you're intending,'' he says. ``Nothing could be worse for children than the current system.''
Mr Rector believes that as the US illegitimacy rate rises - roughly one in three children are born out of wedlock - so pressure for welfare reform will grow.
Republican strategists can also put their trust in what J.K. Galbraith termed ``the culture of contentment''. Galbraith observed that the majority of those who actually vote in elections are enjoying broadly comfortable lives. Thus, there will be resistance in the voting booths to anything that might impinge on that comfort - including demands for taxes to fund welfare. The discontented, many of them black, who should be rallying to defend welfare, generally do not vote.
``The result,'' Galbraith wrote, ``is government that is accommodated not to reality or common need but to the beliefs of the contented, who are now the majority of those who vote''.
Even so, the prospects for the Gingrich bill are unclear. In the House it may well pass easily but Republicans in the Senate are less keen. The public, though wanting change, may balk at so extreme a prescription. Channelling welfare recipients into the workforce - the idea behind Mr Clinton's proposals - is one thing. Ripping a hole in the social safety net so big that five million children end up either on the streets or in orphanages, is another.
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