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Trashed by the Welfare Bill

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, July 27 1996; Page A23

We streamed, we strolled, we strutted into town last fall. We pledged, promised and proclaimed. We bridged and bonded. The Million Man March was one colossal "I Love You, Man" rally.

By sundown, we were heading out of town, empowered, reconciled, self-actualized. Our saunter sent the message: "We're bad, we know it, we're here to show it." It said: "Women, pine no more. We've atoned for our neglect. We're now regenerated companions, child providers and community builders. Sisters, we're coming home."

You'd better, said the conservative Republican-led Congress this week as it rammed through legislation tearing apart the federal safety net that for 60 years has protected poor families and poor communities from abject impoverishment.

History will record that the largest gathering of African American men since the nation's founding was assembled in Washington on Oct. 16, 1995. It will also register the fact that most of the marchers were missing in action when a mean-spirited Congress pulled the rug out from under 2 million poor African American families and their 4 million children.

There are some African Americans, mainly among the middle class, who say the welfare reform fight isn't our main event. They point out, correctly and defensively, that most welfare recipients are white. That's a fact. But it's also true that the percentage of black families on welfare is three times as high as whites. Nearly 40 percent of African American children rely on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). And when you look at the states of the Old Confederacy, where the largest percentage of black welfare recipients live, the African American proportion rises dramatically. And don't think for one moment that the folks on Capitol Hill don't know it, too. No, this was our fight.

What's more, if legal immigrants who also are being trashed in the bill were descendants of the Old World or the Old South, do you think this Congress would be cutting them adrift?

Now the weight and wait are on President Bill Clinton. Let Congress have its way and watch as about a million children eventually get tossed back into poverty. Let these punitive measures become law, and watch as states with new powers over welfare programs race each other to the bottom with ever-lower benefits. Watch as legal immigrants become transformed into social pariahs. Watch as urban problems worsen. The current system may not do much for work, self-respect, family or self-discipline. No argument there. Howev\er, as an exercise in the federal government finding new ways to abandon the least among us, the 104th Congress has done itself proud. What now?

It's a tad late in the day for a repeat performance of the Million Man March. Not that poor women with children couldn't have used a little help on Capitol Hill in the past few months. But that would have called for a sustained engagement in the legislative and political process, where the yardstick of success is measured not by flamboyance, wishful fantasies and rhetorical posturing but by changing attitudes and votes through nothing less than hard persuasion and hand-to-hand lobbying.

And if it's too late to reverse this Congress, it's certainly far too late – almost 30 years in fact – to get another shot at the welfare reform deal that Richard Nixon, of all politicians, put on the table. Talk about blowing one.

Think of it for a moment. A conservative Nixon administration offered to replace the current discredited means-tested welfare system with a guaranteed annual income for the working and nonworking poor. The Family Assistance Plan sought to raise benefits in low-welfare southern states, transfer payment authority from arbitrary state welfare bureaucracies to the Social Security Administration, and encourage fathers to work and reunite with their families. And guess what? Just about everybody at the time, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the National Welfare Rights Organization, found some reason to trash the idea. In the end, Nixon cynically abandoned it, too. All that was left in place was the welfare recipient, available to be stigmatized, reviled and used at will as campaign fodder by self-serving politicians.

With any luck, Bill Clinton will deliver a high-noon-type veto. Not because a rejection of the bill would build support among progressive Democrats and his core constituents of African American voters, though it probably would. The bill should be vetoed because its flaws demand as much.

And with a little more good fortune, men from the march will begin to use their new-found commitment and energy when and where it counts. Much remains to be done beyond striking bold poses of unity. There are families to be re-knitted together, children to be raised, communities to be rebuilt. Attitudes and ways that some of us have passed on to the next generation have to be reversed. The march was a day for paying some old dues. But now there is one added injury for which we on the Mall must also make good. In our heart of hearts, we know that women and children should never have been left in such dire circumstances where congressional bullies could treat them this way. That's nothing to strut about.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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