YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Politics Aside, Credit Clinton for Welfare Act

CAMPAIGN ROADMAP: A continuing series of articles analyzing the '96 presidential strategies.

August 04, 1996|John P. Sears | John P. Sears, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980

WASHINGTON — There was a time when I thought it mattered why people did what they did. As I got older, I realized that it only mattered why I did what I did. As far as other people were concerned, it was good enough that they did something, their reasons not worth speculating about nor important, since their actions set in motion events beyond their intentions.

Mindful of this, I was gratified last week when President Bill Clinton decided to sign the welfare-reform bill presented to him by Congress. There are many who say that his principal reason for doing so was pure politics, that having promised, in 1992, to "end welfare as we know it," he was finally held to account and had no alternative. Others would accuse him of simply robbing the Republicans of an issue in the fall campaign, one which public- opinion polls show the Republican position to be popular. But, at least, something was done about a problem that is at the core of what America is all about.

For 60 years, the elitist, although unspoken, belief that the poor are either morally or intellectually deficient has governed our attitudes about what should be done with them. In a society that rewards individual achievement, the poor were branded as worthless, people who had nothing to recommend them, since they could not even provide for their own subsistence. They were, in a sense, "sick" people, ill-equipped to contribute to society and pitiable in their inadequacies.

Accordingly, the poor were treated as an alien class that needed special "help" simply to survive and from whom nothing was to be expected. We revoked the ability of the poor to make choices, forcing them to conform to standards not demanded of people with means, in order to survive. And, we call this governmental charity.

So-called social workers were poverty policemen, checking up on impoverished people to be sure that benefits were used for "proper" purposes and that any choices still available to the poor were only to be made with the approval of a presumed wiser mind.

Indeed, when questions of what to do about the poor arose, we never heard from anyone who was poor; instead, we heard from their policemen, who steadfastly maintained that any change in the status quo would not only be devastating, but also an act of moral turpitude.

The treatment of poor people became a business, the profits of which could be measured by one vital statistic. By all reckonings, less than 50 cents of every dollar spent by the federal, state and local governments on the poor actually reached the impoverished. More than 50 cents of every dollar went to those who were "looking after" them.

The bill the president signed is far from perfect, but it takes a giant step away from the failed practices of the past. The social trap of unending dependency has been arrested and, in its place, recipients of benefits will now be expected to improve themselves. In these meager beginnings are the seeds of self-respect, a commodity the previous system withheld from the poor, but is essential to American citizenship.

In agreeing to welfare reform, the president is parting company with a core belief of his party. Ever since the Depression, the Democrats have advanced the idea that a wise and benevolent federal government is the cure for human misery. It was thus inevitable that the sharpest criticism of his action would come from members of his own party. One self-appointed advocate of the poor characterized the president's decision as "absurd," while Rep. Charles B. Rangel accused the president of sacrificing the fate of poor children for political expediency. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle noted their displeasure, and the president's own secretary of health and human services was known to have opposed his action. But such criticism did little to deter Clinton's yearlong effort to portray himself as a centrist who shares middle-class values about work and responsibility.

Bob Dole tried to reap some benefit by claiming he had forced the president's hand, but while welfare changes would never have occurred absent Republican control of Congress, it is the president who will receive the most immediate political benefit. All of a sudden, it is credible to believe that meaningful reform can take place in a politically divided government.

Did the president agree to sign the bill because he wished to go along with overwhelming public sentiment to revamp the welfare system? Did he do it to close yet another door on the stumbling campaign of Dole? Was he being crassly political, as his critics charge? I don't care. At least he did it and, whether he meant to or not, he has freed the poor from the asylum of federal dependency. People who have been told they are inadequate and treated as worthless will be encouraged to try. For this, we should all be grateful.

Los Angeles Times Articles