Warning Shots

Early Skirmishes in Next Year’s Welfare Wars

The timing could, of course, count against welfare reform's reformers. The obvious need for federal dollars in other areas, like military operations and boosting the corporate economy, competes with welfare interests. Already, conservatives are arguing that federal funding should be based on today's drastically reduced welfare population, rather than on previous or projected larger numbers. And for feminists and others concerned about parts of the 1996 act that impinge on women's privacy by questioning their children's paternity and other personal issues, there's a worry that surging patriotism might conjure renewed enthusiasm for traditionalist family values.

The main hope for proponents of compassionate welfare reform may be the vast national network of grassroots activism that sprouted in reaction to the 1996 act. From Oakland to Brooklyn, the unprecedented harshness of work requirements and punishments has prompted recipients to unite in an effort to save themselves. "I thought I could do it alone, but it was really difficult," says Soto from Brooklyn. Now she's lobbying top pols for an audience.

"It doesn't take a Ph.D. to know what poverty is and how to deal with it. You need to ask the people what they need," she says. She said as much to Senator Clinton. "She was like, 'These are things I'm really interested in,' " says Soto, "and I said, 'You should be!' " Tactfully, Soto refrained from saying why.

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