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Welfare Bill Seen as Beginning or End

Reform: Republicans say government needs to do more to dismantle 'toxic waste dump.' Opponents warn of impact of removing safety net.

August 02, 1996|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The momentous welfare overhaul that won final congressional approval Thursday may "end welfare as we know it," but even its Republican congressional sponsors warned that it will not end the deep poverty in the blighted neighborhoods of the nation's cities or rural areas.

The bill's Republican patrons expressed sober warnings about how much more federal, state and local governments must do to begin to address the worst problems of poverty in America.

"It's really a toxic waste dump of humanity caused by the federal government," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.). "It's the federal government's responsibility to get in there and clean it up and offer these people the opportunities they have been denied because of a corrupt welfare system."

The far-reaching welfare reform legislation, which passed the Senate, 78 to 21, would end the 61-year federal guarantee of cash assistance to all poor families with children and give control of the welfare system to the states. For the first time, cash assistance would be limited to five years in a lifetime and recipients would be required to work within two years.

The measure represents the sharpest U-turn in American social policy since the New Deal, and many of the nation's poverty specialists and politicians agreed that no one can accurately predict the consequences.

Republican sponsors said that the risk is worthwhile because millions of lives will likely be improved as parents get jobs instead of relying on government handouts.

"A world spinning out of control will be brought back onto its proper course," Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said during a floor speech. "It will return to order not through the power of Washington but through the power of personal responsibility."

"It will stop a system that has become a cancer on our society," added Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

But Democrats opposing the bill warned that the risks are far too great, especially for the 9 million children who make up the majority of the 14 million people on Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the main cash assistance program for poor children.

"The premise of this legislation is that the behavior of certain adults can be changed by making the lives of their children as wretched as possible," Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) said in a speech on the floor of the Senate. "This is a fearsome assumption."

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) argued that it is heartless for the nation to abandon the commitment it has had to every child that "no matter how irresponsible your parents may have been . . , your country would have absolutely guaranteed you a safety net. We are placing in jeopardy, for the first time in more than a half a century, the 9 million children who are recipients."

Protesters in the visitors' gallery of the Senate chamber chanted, "Shame! Shame!" as the senators began to vote. But Capitol security officers forced them out. Dan Nichols of the Capitol police said that 10 people were arrested and charged with disrupting Congress.

Community activists and social workers echoed the fears expressed by Democratic opponents.

"I'm really, really scared," Brenda Richardson, a community activist in the District of Columbia, said as she contemplated the impact of welfare reform on her neighborhood of Anacostia, southeast of the Capitol.

The risk, she said, is not just for families on welfare, but also for the communities they live in and the whole nation.

Richardson has been having meetings with her neighbors who are on welfare to try to prepare them for the new system. When she asked recipients in one group what they would do when they have used up their five years of cash benefits, one mother replied: "I'm going to get a gun and hold up somebody like you--in her home or in her car--and take the money so I can feed my babies," Richardson recalled.

"I live in Anacostia. We may have to protect our own home because people will be out here doing whatever it takes to feed their children. When you get hungry, you get mad.

"Imagine how many hungry mothers there will be in the streets of the United States. Welfare reform is not just affecting the welfare recipients, it's affecting me too. We, working-class folks, have to figure out what role we can play to make sure a revolution doesn't start, because when poor people and children are hungry and have no place to go," they may turn to crime and violence, she said.

Moynihan has issued similar warnings, saying that "children [would] end up on the streets, roving in bands, out of control, a threat to themselves, danger to others."

While the Republican sponsors rejected such dire predictions, they conceded that welfare reform alone is an inadequate solution to chronic poverty, both urban and rural.

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