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Columnists Remarkable Providences
Once more unto the breach.
Hyperventilating press releases were flying off the fax machines on July 31 and early in August after President Clinton announced that he would sign this year's welfare reform act. Liberal lobbying groups like the Children's Defense Fund were proclaiming that Congress and a cowed president were ruthlessly eliminating safeguards for the poor.
The paper blizzard might lead inquiring minds to ask the poverty lobbyists, why not cut your public relations staffs and use those funds to help people in need? But lapdog newspapers and network news shows instead relayed accusations and skipped by facts. Here are a few questions about the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act that reporters readily could answer, if they wanted to:
**red_square** What if some folks cannot get a job after their five years' eligibility is up? States can exempt up to 20 percent of their total caseloads from the limits, based on individual circumstances. States are also free to use funds from other federal programs to provide services to persons over the five--year limit, and to use their own funds to keep folks on the rolls for a lifetime, if they wish.
**red_square** Are poor people in a state that runs into economic hard times left unprotected? Through a contingency fund, any state with an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent and worsening conditions can receive a 20 percent augmentation of the block grant. States can also tap into a federal revolving loan fund.
**red_square** Do poor people lose health care coverage? The legislation maintains the Medicaid entitlement to families on welfare, and provides a year of transitional Medicaid benefits to persons who leave welfare for work.
**red_square** Do legal immigrants lose all benefits? Veterans of the U.S. military or persons who have worked and paid taxes in the United States for at least 10 years retain all benefits, as do refugees. Others become ineligible for food stamps or SSI, but can still tap into dozens of other federal programs, including those subsidizing emergency medical services and disaster relief.
**red_square** Is child--care funding cut? The legislation increases the current--law level of mandatory federal child--care funding by $3.5 billion.
**red_square** Are work requirements for food stamp eligibility onerous? Able--bodied persons between 18 and 50 with no dependents are to work at least 20 hours per week, 11 months per year. Persons who are mentally or physically unfit for employment, and parents or others who have responsibility for a dependent child, are exempt from the work requirements.
**red_square** Will changes in welfare increase the number of abortions? Results from states such as New Jersey that have enacted welfare reforms do not indicate any abortion surge. In any event, two wrongs don't make a right; we should be promoting abstinence and adoption, not enabling more teenage sexual activity by guaranteeing cash if pregnancy results.
I could go on with this listing, but I hope my point is clear: The liberal lobbyists are crying wolf. Overall, with this welfare reform, federal welfare spending will still increase by $140 billion over the next six years-is that a cut?
The legislation is incomplete in many ways but hardly onerous, and it even offers states some incentive to improve conditions. States can receive bonus block grants for moving adults from welfare to work or for helping to reduce the rate of out--of--wedlock births without increasing abortion rates.
Why, then, do the publicists and reporters rage? In part, I think, because this welfare reform strikes at two rituals of latter--day liberal religion: (1) Bow to Washington seven times a day; (2) Recite after every meal, "If the federal government doesn't do it, it won't get done."
Could federal welfare changes lead to more poverty? Yes, but only if every other institution in America-state government, local government, philanthropic and charitable organizations, community and religious groups, businesses-fails utterly, and if neither middle--class citizens nor some poor individuals themselves change any aspects of behavior.
Most people think that the possibility of a complete breakdown in all these areas is remote. But those with true faith in the feds do not, and it is from them that the outcry is coming.
On a personal note, I want to thank people who have prayed for me over the past year and a half, as I have been working on welfare reform in Washington and across the country. It's a pleasure to see some positive change underway, and to begin thinking about the next steps. This is the beginning of a transition that may last 30 years, unless Christ returns first.