Warning Shots


Maribel Soto of Bed-Stuy has high hopes for her relationship with Hillary Clinton. The two are on a first-name basis after meeting in early november at a press event to promote raising the minimum wage. The women’s backgrounds couldn’t be more different—Soto is a former welfare recipient as of december 2 and the mother of three, while Clinton is, well, not. But they hit it off during their 15-minute chat and agreed to get together soon.

Last week, Soto was still waiting to hear back from Clinton’s people, who warned that the senator could only squeeze Soto in on a Saturday. But “I’ll keep calling until I get something,” says Soto. An organizer with Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, a Brooklyn-based welfare rights group, she is on the front line of fighting poverty. Victory, she reasons, will come quicker if she enlists the bigwigs.

In fact, while war abroad grips the nation’s attention, another battle—potentially as fractious and consequential—has started brewing at home. Next September, the 1996 welfare reform act comes up for renewal. Congress will decide whether to retain the act’s landmark changes, including the five-year lifetime limit on federal cash assistance, nearly universal work requirements, and federal funding to states based on predetermined amounts rather than as required. The already heated debates won’t just address the nitty-gritty of bureaucracy. Hanging in the balance are major social and ideological decisions about family values, immigrants’ rights, and mitigating poverty. Given the stakes, legislators and activists think one year ahead is hardly too soon to take up the fight.

The real catalyst for Congress’s jump start has been the five-year lifetime limit that people in most parts of the country began hitting in the last couple of months. After hearing from constituents like the student who will have to quit college because her cash assistance ran out, Hawaii congresswoman Patsy Mink drafted a comprehensive bill that takes on the 1996 act piece by piece. The proposal, which keeps the basic structure of the existing act but significantly revises its spirit, has so far drawn 50 Democratic co-sponsors.

Mink’s bill seeks to revamp what critics of the 1996 act view as its harshest measures. It would essentially lift time limits for recipients who comply with work requirements while expanding the definition of work to include education and caring for young children. Mink also proposes stronger protections for families in domestic-violence situations and restoring benefits to legal immigrants, who lost them in 1996. A companion bill in the Senate is expected soon.

Numerous smaller proposals, targeting bits of the 1996 act, have dribbled in as pols on both sides of the aisle scramble to respond to constituents reaching federal limits during this national recession. New York City congresswoman Nydia Velázquez last week introduced an unusually radical package lauded by recipients’ groups. She calls for repealing time limits altogether, in addition to allowing benefits for legal immigrants. She challenges Mayor Giuliani to prove the success of his notorious welfare purge: “Can he truly in a concrete way show that those who left are working? Where are they?”

The main objective of liberals and progressives in releasing proposals right now is to edge ahead of more conservative fans of the existing act, or at least keep pace. The 1996 reforms caught a lot of Democrats off guard—it “whizzed” past, says Mink.

The surprise element of that effort was its leadership, the man who vowed to “end welfare as we know it.” Bill Clinton embraced a welfare platform condemned by some fellow Dems as politically motivated and “much too harsh,” says Mink. For many critics, taking on the party’s top dog was unrealistic or unwise.

The current fight to temper the 1996 act might go smoother with a conservative in office, Democrats reason. At least political niceties won’t hog-tie them. Moreover, Mink says, welfare reform “is certainly not on [Bush’s] radar” at the moment, what with war and national security taking up his time.

In fact, the administration’s action on welfare so far has amounted to a series of “listening sessions” in major urban centers around the nation, purportedly to collect public testimony on how welfare is working. Several of these hearings have drawn loud protests from grassroots welfare organizations, whose members complain of being excluded from the invitation-only gatherings.

Partisan welfare battles since 1996 have played out more on the local level, a manifestation of the greater state discretion the act created. In New York City, for instance, Giuliani made it his personal mission to slice the rolls and set a national example in doing so by more than 50 percent. Accusations of undue harshness and illegality from recipients and the city’s other, overwhelmingly Democratic, elected officials, failed to stem the tide.

But with national policy up for debate, anti-poverty advocates from across the country see an opportunity to strike at the source of local problems. Some fundamental shifts since 1996 may count in their favor, namely the plummeting state of the economy. The boom times of the mid 1990s masked the true human toll of the time limits and blanket work requirements. In those days, the thinking went, all it took to get a job was to go out and look for one. The terms of the welfare debate now, liberals and progressives hope, will have to be about reducing poverty rather than reducing the rolls.

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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