Welfare reform: hostage to a lie

Last week, welfare reform proponent Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) said, “You repeat the big lie enough times and people will believe it.” He was referring, of course, to the problem faced by congressional welfare reformers — mostly Republicans and 20 to 30 Democrat centrists — as they try to change the nation’s costly but failed welfare system.

Example: Most TV news mavens and status quo advocates tell us to believe the welfare reform plan removes milk cartons and hot lunches from the grasping hands of little children. In fact, the plan actually increases federal spending on school nutrition programs.

Why do status quo politicians and national media give us a very different picture of welfare reform? Because the block grant approach — that combines more than 50 assorted welfare programs into a single block grant and returns “federal” money to states — will reduce the power of Washington-based bureaucrats and welfare professionals. The opposition is more about saving the power and privileges of entrenched interests than it is about helping poor people. That’s unfortunate, but it’s true.

One thing is clear: Sixty years of federalizing, professionalizing and bureaucratizing these safety net issues have not worked. Welfare rolls bulge as federal welfare rules and regulations discourage work, encourage single-parent families and hold harmless irresponsible fathers. Result: Skyrocketing costs, growing intergenerational welfare and increased youth vioIence by kids raised without fathers.

Democrat leaders and other status quo advocates portray the proposed consolidation of fragmented federal programs and their transfer to the states as cruel “cuts” aimed at women, children and the elderly. According to one wag: GOP reforms give new meaning to the phrase “women and children first.”

In fact, nearly every claim of the status quo Democrats is false. Examples:

  • Child care. The block grant combines nine federal programs and caps spending at the current level of $1.9 billion per vear.
  • School lunches. The block grant includes school lunch and breakfast programs and actually increases funding from $6.6 billion in 1996 to $7.8 billion in 2000.
  • Family nutrition. The block grant combines several nutrition programs, including the well-known WIC program (Women, Infants and Children), and actually increases spending from 84.5 billion in 1996 to $5.2 billion in 2000.
  • Food stamps. The GOP merges four commodity distribution programs into one, limits increases to 2% a year and requires able-bodied recipients to work.
  • Family assistance. The block grant combines Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), job training and emergency assistance. It would provide annual funding at the current level of $15.4 billion.
  • Child protection. The block grant combines 23 child welfare programs and increases funding from $4.4 billion to $5.6 billion over five years.
  • Supplemental Securitv Income. Reforms stop drug addicts and alcoholics from receiving cash payments as “disabled Americans” but would spend $400 million on drug treatment and research.

So the battle over who wields power within the federal system is joined on the issue of welfare reform. As we know from military history, truth is often the first casualty of war.

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