The Politics of Welfare Reform: Republicans with Hearts Give Democrats Hope

Tom Downey
Tom Downey Chairman, Downey McGrath

June 1, 2001

As a charter member of the Democratic left, my view has always been that welfare reform has two goals: helping people get work and eliminating poverty. We haven’t had a discussion about ending poverty in a long time. But I think we may be ready for one.

I’ve got a long history as a mock sparring partner preparing Democrats for the televised presidential campaign debates. In the 1996 campaign, I played Jack Kemp. In 2000, I was Bill Bradley—another professional athlete but otherwise quite a contrast. Last fall, my preparations to play George W. Bush ended abruptly when I got a package in the mail that included his debate material and a videotape of him debating. But before that happened, I had spent two months studying everything that Bush had done on the issue of poverty and welfare, everything he’d said. I was probably his web site’s most frequent visitor.

As the campaign unfolded, I began to have a certain amount of partisan unease, I must say. I knew it was going to be a close election. But Bush was doing something that Republicans have historically just not done. Prosperity with a purpose. Compassionate conservatism. Stealing the phrase of the Children’s Defense Fund—leave no child behind.

These are important statements and phrases. They mean something when they’re repeated as often as they have been. I was uneasy because I have always felt that Republicans with hearts—thankfully, there are not a lot of them—are pretty potent and pretty effective politically. I was afraid that Bush was a Republican with a heart and that he was going to be real trouble for us. Well, while I personally think we won the election last fall, he was certainly trouble.

From now on, part of the welfare debate has to be focused on what George Bush wants to do and how he is going to do it. And here, there are some intriguing suggestions.

First of all, Bush named Governor Tommy Thompson to be his health and human services secretary. During Thompson’s confirmation, Senator John Edwards (D-NC) asked him, “Do you save money doing welfare reform?” And Thompson said, “I’ve been preaching about this forever. Welfare reform is not about saving money. It’s about getting people to work and getting them started.” Frankly, while I’m not always excited by some of Secretary Thompson’s rhetoric on the subject, I think that if all the states in the union did what Wisconsin does to help people get work and to help provide quality day care and wage supplements, we’d be a lot better country.

Then there is President Bush’s inaugural address, a couple of passages from which are well worth noting:

“In the quiet of American conscience, we know that a deep persistent poverty is unworthy of our nation’s promise. And whatever our views of its cause, we can agree that children at risk are not at fault; abandonment and abuse are not acts of God, they are failures of love.

“Where there is suffering, there is duty. Americans in need are not strangers. They are citizens. Not problems, but priorities. And all of us are diminished when they are hopeless.

“Many in our country do not know the pain of poverty. But we can listen to those who do. And I pledge our nation to a goal. When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.”

Now, my friend Al Gore may not like for me to say it, but this was a beautiful inaugural address. And these particular words were the first words of President Bush espousing the deep principles of his presidency. So the question in the weeks and months ahead will be: do these words have meaning?

Democrats will be watching closely. Congressman George Miller (D-CA), an unlikely supporter of President Bush, said to me recently that he believes Bush is going to do some important work in educating the disadvantaged. Maybe Bush will do other important work that would make an enormous difference to people who are still suffering from poverty, as—make no mistake about it—many are, and grievously.

Last December, a report by the Catholic Charities noted that the number of people receiving emergency assistance at their shelters had increased 22 percent. The number of people receiving emergency food assistance from soup kitchens, food banks, and other food services had surged 32 percent. Emergency cash assistance, which helps people pay for rent, utilities, and medicine, had risen 29 percent to $80 million. The number of people receiving utility assistance had increased 15 percent. Clothing assistance had gone up 9 percent. Homelessness had also gone up.

These disturbing trends are also mirrored in reports by the League of Cities. And as Peter Edelman has eloquently pointed out in his book, Searching for America’s Heart, many, many people have left the welfare rolls, but have not found jobs. The incidence of real grinding poverty—that is, income less than half the poverty level—has been pretty persistent and consistent.

What can happen? President Bush can say, “I’m going to do more for early childhood education. I’m going to expand Head Start for three- and four-year-olds. I want to make it a reading program and I want to make it much bigger.” A lot of Democrats will be happily applauding on the sidelines. Bush can say he wants to expand the school day and the school year. We’ll cheer him every step of the way and give him large majorities when it comes time to vote.

The president wants to increase the child tax credit from $500 to $1,000. That’s a good idea, too—but not quite good enough unless it’s partially refundable so that it can go to some of the people who really need the help. We can also expand the earned income tax credit—not only to eliminate its marriage penalty, but alsoto account for a third child. That’s expensive, but it’s the right thing to do. And we can expand the Child Health Insurance Program.

I’m frankly a lot more optimistic about the prospects for all these initiatives than I might have been right after last November’s election. I think some of the signs are good. We might not see a lot of changes in the welfare reform law. It’s going to be hard to undo the time limits, though maybe we can change the way the clock starts in some parts of the country. And we also must face the painful reality that about a third of the folks who have received public assistance over the years are just not going to get to work. And we’d better be damned concerned about what happens to their kids.

On some of these issues, the president has spoken eloquently. Now it’s up to him to show us the money.