Girding for Disaster: Local Officials and Private Charities Brace Themselves for Welfare Reform

Article excerpt

There's no great welfare fix on the horizon. That's the bad news for people who voted for President Clinton hoping he would find a way to undo the harsh anti-welfare bill he signed into law shortly before the election.

While Clinton has announced that he wants to make some modest changes in the welfare law--including offering tax incentives to employers who hire welfare recipients, reinstating some benefits for legal immigrants, and restoring food stamps to working families who have high shelter costs--the President's proposals would reverse less than one-third of the $54 billion in cuts to anti-poverty programs over the next seven years.

And that's the best-case scenario. In reality, Clinton is unlikely to win all the welfare-spending increases he asks for during budget negotiations with the Republican-dominated Congress. "Is he really going to push it?" asks Jodie Levin-Epstein, a welfare expert at the Center for Law and Social Policy. "If he doesn't push it at all, then we're going to get zippo."

Even if Clinton's small fixes go through, the big welfare-reform picture isn't going to change much. "Reductions in federal spending are only part of it," says Mark Greenberg, Levin-Epstein's colleague at the Center for Law and Social Policy. "The larger issue is the block-grant structure, which eliminates state and federal responsibility for the poor. It's not obvious how you fix that."

As a result, millions of poor people--most of them children--still face deep economic distress as they lose cash assistance, food stamps, and Supplemental Security Income under the law Clinton signed. Clinton's liberal supporters (the "denial crowd," as Levin-Epstein calls them) have been clinging to the idea that he will undo the damage in the welfare law.

But Clinton has no intention of trying to make any major structural changes to the welfare law, or of changing the block-grant system, according to Michael Kharfen, director of the office of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services.

"The President feels it is unfair and wrong for legal immigrants who work and serve in the military to be denied benefits," says Kharfen. "But the other core elements of the welfare law as it was passed by Congress and signed by the President--the financing structure, the flexibility given to the states, work requirements, time limits, and more parental responsibility--those are the core features of what the welfare law is about, and these are the features we have to make work."

Making it work is now up to local governments, churches, charities, and private employers. Clinton has been urging these groups to jump in and help the poor as the federal government pulls out.

"We must not pack our compassion back in the cupboard like fine china that gets used once a year," the President said in his weekly radio address on Thanksgiving, when he urged Americans to pitch in and help move people off the welfare rolls. "The spirit of family and faith and community that shines so brilliantly on Thanksgiving can enable us to meet every challenge before us all year long."

Unfortunately, churches and charitable groups disagree. The American spirit of generosity, as measured in actual donations to charity, won't come close to making up for the cuts in human services that local communities are beginning to experience this year under the new welfare law.

According to a report by Catholic Charities, U.S.A., the cuts in entitlements and other low-income programs under the new welfare law will average $15.1 billion per year over the next seven years, yet charitable giving to churches and human-services groups around the nation amounted to only $11.7 billion in 1995.

"To make up for government cuts, we'd have to more than double charitable giving every year," says Sharon Daly of Catholic Charities, U.S.A. "We don't see that as likely because for five of the last six years, charitable giving has been dropping off. …