Skip to main content

Columnists Remarkable Providences

Staying the course

Staying the course

Confusion in Congress threatens welfare reform

It's working-even the new york times realizes that. It's working-and Congress is snatching defeat from victory's jaws.

The "it" is welfare reform. Recently a Times headline-"Sink-or-Swim Welfare, Pensacola Staying Afloat"-noted good news. Most former welfare recipients have done fine in the Florida city that three years ago imposed time limits on welfare benefits. (The whole country came along last August, when President Clinton reluctantly signed the Republican bill.)

The Times, which vigorously fought serious welfare reform on its editorial page, quoted on its news pages 39-year-old mother Denise Riley, who refused to work as long as she was receiving a welfare check. Last September her time was up, and liberals predicted doom. But Ms. Riley says, "I went to work a week later. I had to."

She now stocks the buffet at a pizzeria for $5.75 an hour, and calls her ouster from welfare a blessing: "It made me wake up and get my priorities back in order. I'll be honest: I might have leaned on that check a little longer."

Pensacola evidently has many such stories, and there are many more developing all across the country. These stories are no surprise; the Bible teaches that we are all fallen human beings who need to be challenged to do the right thing. Any time a false understanding of compassion leads politicians to patronize potentially hard-working adults by offering entitlements, we harm the poor under the guise of doing good.

Welfare reform will work, if we let it. Here's the danger: the Times also quoted a welfare mom who is resisting the change. Tatashia Holley, 24, complained that her caseworkers "wanted people to go to McDonald's. I got too much pride for that. I didn't go to school for that stinking paycheck."

The story reported the problems that ensued after Ms. Holley's refusal. She had to move to a dilapidated building. She may have to place her children in foster care. This is sad, but what if welfare officials give in now and say, "Ms. Holley, you're right, it is ennobling to be on welfare and demeaning to flip burgers"? One young woman (and eventually millions of others) will lose the opportunity for real change. They and their children will be condemned to life on welfare.

As anyone who works behind a fast food counter knows-I learned it when I was young, one of my sons has learned it this summer-those jobs are great for teaching responsible behavior. If Ms. Holley swallowed her false pride and worked hard, she'd be able to move from a beginning job to a better job, and eventually that stinking paycheck would smell pretty sweet.

The Times article is important, because it goes against the grain. The tendency of liberal journalists and professors is to highlight the short-term, tear-jerking stories that emerge and ignore the positive changes.

Already, many of the official welfare experts seem intent on greasing the slide back to Egyptian bondage. One of this year's academic books on welfare, Rebecca Blank's It Takes a Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty, skillfully fights to retain much of the old agenda.

On the other hand, three helpful books have come out over the past 18 months. I wrote one entitled Renewing American Compassion, but overall I like better Michael Tanner's The End of Welfare. There's also Susan Mayer's What Money Can't Buy, a book that conveys very well the understanding that welfare transfers are not the answer.

Last year washington leaders understood this. But this summer it appears that the Democratic-Republican lovefest will increase welfare spending once again and potentially eliminate much of the pressure on welfare recipients to work. Welfare reform was the crown jewel of what once was called the Republican Revolution. Now, the heist is underway.

Sadly, weakness at the top among Republicans in Congress will hurt millions of people on the bottom. Pundits are talking about derailed Washington political careers in the wake of leadership softness and the failed anti-Gingrich coup, but the real story involves derailed lives around the country.

The political hope is now at the state level, where governors and state legislators still will have more running room than they used to. The greatest hope is that church and community organizations will step in to aid welfare recipients in making the jump to financial independence, even as the forces of dependence strengthen their hold once more. For all of us, the lesson is, "Put not your trust in princes." Our hope is in the Lord.