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How the GOP Discredits Welfare Reform

By Mickey Kaus
Friday, April 25 1997; Page A27


During last year's Republican convention in San Diego, I ran into a prominent conservative strategist (name withheld) and suggested to him that parts of the 1996 welfare reform, which we both favored, were gratuitously tough on legal immigrants. He said I didn't understand. The ban on welfare for legal immigrants, he explained, was part of a bargain with Republican nativists who wanted to stop immigration entirely. They'd agree to continue it only if assured that immigrants wouldn't come to this country and go on welfare. That seemed a fine deal, I said – but to fulfill the bargain, the restrictions on welfare needed only apply to future immigrants. They didn't have to affect elderly, disabled immigrants who were already here and who had relied on the old rules. The Republican strategist agreed that a retroactive cutoff wasn't necessary.

Then he added, "Did we do that?"

Yes, you did. As a result, almost half a million old, disabled – and perfectly legal – immigrants are threatened with loss of benefit checks in late August. That's when, under the 1996 law, they will be barred from receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the basic federal income guarantee available to the poor who, due to age or infirmity, are not expected to work. They will also lose food stamps. Majority Leader Trent Lott says he's willing to consider a small temporary block grant to help states cope with this problem, but not much more. A few GOP senators have recently broken ranks with Lott, but many Republicans actually still seem to think it clever that they forced President Clinton to ask that welfare reform be "reopened" to restore the immigrants' benefits.

Can they be serious? Put aside, if that's possible, the human cost of letting the retroactive immigrant cuts go through. Consider only the cynical politics. By failing to reverse the cuts, or by dragging out the inevitable process by which they will be reversed, Republicans risk discrediting both themselves and the welfare reform for which they fought for decades.

That law should be a Republican triumph. It is overwhelmingly popular, yet most congressional Democrats opposed it. At its core, it ended the most despised federal welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which sent cash aid to poor, mostly single-mother families. AFDC has been replaced with a block grant for states to spend on aid programs of their own devising.

So far, despite predictions of a near-apocalypse from the left, this part of the reform seems to be going reasonably well. States are not rushing to be mean. Yet the law's basic message – that even single mothers are expected to work – seems to be having an impact. It is one reason welfare caseloads are plummeting nationwide, freeing money for states to spend on long-term, hard-core recipients. Ultimately the goal is (to use a term favored by Newt Gingrich) transforming the "culture of poverty" that AFDC sustained.

The immigrant cuts are, at best, tangential to this goal. SSI is not AFDC. It goes to those too old (over 65) or too sick to work. Retirees and invalids are not mainstays of a "culture of poverty." Yet what is the first big story the public will hear about the impact of the new welfare law? The story of 94-year-old babushkas faced with the prospect of being thrown out of their apartments, of senile grandfathers being turned out of nursing homes.

It's not hard to predict what will happen. Voters will say to themselves "Wait a minute; that's not what we meant by welfare reform," just as in 1994 they said that shutting down the government wasn't what they meant when they elected Gingrich speaker. Democrats will use the unpopularity of the SSI cuts to discredit both Republicans and the larger reform effort. And if Republicans don't think the press will use the immigrants' agony to the same effect, then they take their own paranoia about the "liberal media elite" less seriously than perhaps they should.

I suspect most congressional Republicans know that changing the rules retroactively on elderly and disabled legal immigrants was – and is – indefensible. They know that in the end they will have to come up with a fix. But they are in the middle of budget negotiations with the White House, and they don't want to give away such a valuable bargaining chip until the very end.

This might be a sound strategy, except for one factor: The elderly immigrants affected don't realize it's all a budget game. Many will be terrified, and some of them will be so terrified of either losing all support or becoming a burden on their children that they will end their lives. At least one already has – a retired laborer named Ignacio Munoz in Stockton, Calif., according to a recent Wall Street Journal story. You can bet, when such tragedies occur, that fingers will be pointed (not unreasonably) at Republicans.

The only way to avoid this predictable disaster is to convincingly reassure the elderly immigrants now. Another "block grant," which individual states may or may not use to replace some or all of the lost federal aid, won't provide this reassurance. A two-year delay in the cutoff – another half-solution being bandied about – only postpones the crisis. So the suicides begin in two years instead of two months. Indeed, a delay would turn the SSI question into a sort of permanent bleeding sore for the Republican Congress.

The obvious move for Republicans is to take the issue off the table, permanently, by simply "grandfathering" in all those who came to this country under the old SSI rules (before the 1996 law was signed). Republicans can still save billions by changing the SSI rules for future immigrants. They can still blast Clinton, whose budget fails to protect all existing SSI recipients (it retains the cutoff of those who are old but able-bodied) yet continues indefinitely SSI payments for future immigrants, as long as they can successfully claim they became disabled after they arrived.

With a "grandfather" clause, Republicans would also be protecting the meaning of citizenship, the requirements for which are currently being watered down in a desperate attempt to naturalize elderly immigrants before they lose their benefits. And above all, the Republicans would be able to cleanly defend the 1996 welfare reform against Democrats who still hate it and will almost surely try to undermine it.

If Republicans move quickly and unilaterally to restore the SSI benefits, they can even hog most of the credit. They'll look magnanimous. Of course, the move will be entirely justified by political self-interest. But I won't tell if you won't.

The writer is a contributing editor of the New Republic.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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