Jobs First, Then Let's Talk Welfare Reform

Article excerpt

The heartbeat of welfare-and potential welfare reform-could be heard recently at two Washington gatherings. The first, at a March 1 National Press Club conference where a combined Republican-Democrat poll on welfare issues was released; the second, at the Feb. 26-March 2 annual Catholic social ministry gathering at the Capitol Hill Quality Hotel.

The statistics are deplorable: 9 million children receive assistance each month; 36.9 million Americans live below the poverty line. Nonetheless, there has probably never been a moment in America when so many people agreed that welfare wasn't working and yet was still needed or when welfare reform per se apparently had so much across-the-board support.

Oh, there's plenty of finger-pointing and worse at welfare mothers and deadbeat dads, but the debate has caught itself by surprise-for the moment it is moderate, bipartisan and, at the center at least, quite sensible.

Peter D. Hart is a Democratic public research firm; American Viewpoint polls for Republicans. In combination, they discovered that Americans "recognize the complexities of welfare reform and the difficulties of moving many Americans out of poverty."

Americans generally blame a lack of individual effort more than circumstances for poverty. The majority of African-Americans polled, however, contend poverty's leading cause is the lack of jobs. Hold that thought.

U.S. voters want recipients off welfare and into the workplace. But when the talk comes to applying limits-such as two years and off the dole-voters don't want children hurt. More than 77 percent of responding voters would make exceptions for mothers with preschool children and mothers on welfare who work part-time.

Most American voters believe that most U.S. social system programs (criminal justice, health care, education, taxes) function poorly-but they overwhelmingly believe the welfare system functions worst of all.

And yet, welfare is how America deals with its poor, and as Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop John H. Ricard told the 450 social justice advocates, "Poverty takes on a real face, the face of Christ. We bring convictions to this debate."

Catholic Charities USA head, Jesuit Fr. Fred Kammer, said, "The problem is not welfare but poverty. And the answer is jobs." Hold that thought, too.

Kammer said welfare is not a new story but a 4,000-year-old issue: "The scriptures have three protected classes: widows, orphans and strangers. Today we're obviously dealing ... with poor women, children, those marginalized in society because of nationality, race etc."

And within the United States, Kammer continued, not all poor are treated equally. "The No. 1 priority for Catholic Charities," he said, "is that many people we serve rely on paltry (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) benefits. It is literally impossible to survive on welfare benefits in many states. For common good and decency we must persist in raising the question of decent AFDC benefits in this nation."

Where's the debate headed? …