D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) hopes to become a "national advocate" for welfare reform, saying Tuesday that he's uniquely qualified to speak out about how the system is failing poor residents and taxpayers.
"It's like Nixon going to China," Barry said. "You learn that times require different approaches. We have been wedded to this system for years and it's been a miserable failure not to close the economic gap of our people."
On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that Barry and D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) are sponsoring a bill that would impose a five-year limit on cash payments to participants in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
Barry's embrace of the time limits, which could force up to 40 percent of D.C. recipients off TANF, caught many advocates and council members by surprise.
Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Human Services Committee, all but declared Monday that Barry's proposal probably will not even be brought up for a vote. Wells said the legislation, as drafted, would force about 8,000 residents from TANF and would also end other benefits, such as childcare subsidies, that they may need to transition into the workforce.
But Barry, a former mayor with a reputation for being a fierce proponent of government spending, said his proposal is a first step in a broader fight to get more welfare recipients into the workforce.
Instead of "kicking people off the rolls," Barry said his proposal was designed to bolster job-training and employment services within the Department of Human Services, which administers the city's TANF program.
Barry said he will also be pushing a series of proposals to try to "get the private sector to live up to their responsibility" to hire city residents. With a little training, Barry said, welfare recipients could transition into well-paying jobs in the District. Barry will likely find an ally in Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D), whose economic development plan calls for tapping into the hospitality and other industries to try to reduce unemployment.
"There was a time in the African American community, even during segregation, when 90 percent of the waiters were black," Barry said. "This is an excellent opportunity to train these welfare recipients to be able to speak a certain way, to learn menus, to learn courtesy and make up to $200 to $300 a day."
On Wednesday, Barry plans to speak about his proposal on Fox 5 (WTTG) news. He also hopes to take his message to the national media, believing other urban areas also need to refocus their human service programs.
"I am going to become a national advocate for welfare transformation," said Barry, who has long been known to relish the spotlight. "Transformation is like a cocoon. You have a worm, in a cocoon, that transforms into a beautiful butterfly."