What else might we accomplish if we didn't give back 1.6 trillion dollars in tax cuts,
about half of the money to millionaires? For starters, we could end poverty in America
- by making sure that work pays a living wage and that children don't pay the price
when mothers work.
In 1996, President Clinton and the Republican Congress ended welfare as we knew it. Welfare
was replaced with a new program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. This
compromise put time limits on public assistance and required recipients to find jobs - but also
added supports to help single mothers of small children succeed at work. Luckily for its
sponsors, the program coincided with an economic boom, so jobs were plentiful.
Details were left to the states. Some chose to help welfare mothers improve their living
standards through paid employment, with child care, job training, and outreach to make sure
families got the Medicaid and food stamps they needed. Other states just slashed the rolls, and
created Kafkaesque obstacles to benefits, even benefits intended to facilitate work.
Overall, the number of people on public aid has been cut by more than half. But most of the
ex-welfare people now working are still poor. The typical wage of a former welfare recipient is
under $8 an hour, and often under $6.
Researchers find that 30 to 40 percent of people who have left welfare are actually worse off
economically, including at least a million children. And this doesn't even count the social cost of
having millions of children in makeshift day care, or fending for themselves while mothers try to
hold on to jobs. Many mothers are one sick child away from losing both a job and a reduced
package of aid.
When former President Clinton pledged to end welfare as we know it, he also promised that
people who work hard and play by the rules would not be poor. But society has not delivered
its part of the bargain.
The program comes up for renewal next year. What might we do? First, let's truly make work
pay. The program gives block-grants to states and rewards them with bonuses for meeting
goals. But the goals should not just be cutting the rolls. States should also be rewarded based on
whether they give former recipients the tools to succeed at work. And more money, say $10
billion a year, could be put into the program to increase work and training supports, so that
ex-welfare recipients could get on career ladders and not just rotate in and out of dead-end jobs.
Second, the whole point of ending welfare was to break the cycle of dependency, in which
teenage girls became pregnant and bear children, teenage boys take no responsibility for the
babies they father, and daughters follow mothers into the welfare life. But if nobody is minding
the children of single working mothers, how do we expect to save these children from the
streets? Where will the next generation learn responsibility?
Most other advanced countries have universal day care at public expense, as well as
prekindergarten programs taught by professionals, that get kids ready for school. The
provoucher ads that you see, bemoaning how badly American kids do in standard tests
compared with European ones, don't tell you about Europe's far higher quality child care and
prekindergarten programs. Comprehensive prekindergarten and better child care could cost
another $50 to $75 billion a year.
Third, we could combine a higher minium wage with a more generous earned income tax credit.
This would reward paid work, not just for the people who have recently left welfare but for the
millions more who were never on welfare, and who can barely support their families. A more
generous tax rebate for working families with children would cost another $50 billion a year.
These outlays, together, add up to less money than the proposed Bush tax cut. But President
Bush has put forward a coherent vision and his opponents, alas, have not. Bush thinks
government should shrink and taxes should be cut, even if the benefit goes mostly to rich
people who don't need it. This is a vision I deplore, but has the virtue of clarity.
The Democrats, sadly, are treating this like a technical budget debate: adjust the tax cut here,
add a little spending there. Instead, they should be treating it as a grand debate about values. Do
we pamper the rich - or reward work and nurture kids?
That's a debate we could win. What's lacking is leadership, imagination, and clear purpose.