March to End the War on the Poor

by Jan Erickson

"It is clear that the far right leadership in Congress wants to sacrifice poor women and children to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy," NOW President Patricia Ireland charged in a recent speech. "On April 14, we will march to let the politicians know that we will not tolerate their scapegoating efforts to balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable members of our society."

After Congress passed a bill that ended the 60-year-old program of guaranteed cash assistance to the poor, President Clinton vetoed the legislation, saying it "punished poor children without accomplishing real reform."

As this issue went to press, it appeared as though the Republicans might try to back the president into a corner. Although Clinton initially stated that he would sign the Senate version of the bill, more recently he has been quoted as saying that the legislation was inadequate. The House had passed a much harsher bill but may adopt the far-from-ideal Senate bill and try to pressure the president to sign it.

The measure Clinton vetoed would have turned over federal responsibility for social safety net programs to the states in the form of block grants; reduced spending by more than $82 billion over seven years; set a lifetime limit of five years on welfare benefits; required recipients to be in the paid workforce; and withheld benefits from newly born children of parents already receiving welfare. Benefits would also have been denied to immigrants, even those here as legal residents.

The defeated conference bill would have also imposed deep cuts in the food stamps program and in the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for the elderly and children with disabilities; reduced support for child nutrition programs, such as school lunches, and for child care programs; and gutted existing health and safety standards for federally financed child care.

Critics assailed the legislation as not reforming welfare, but rather attacking poor women and children, potentially pushing millions further into poverty. Currently, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) helps almost 15 million people, two thirds of whom are children.

Typically, the total income from both vouchers and cash of a mother and two children receiving AFDC and food stamps is $661 per month, well below the poverty line. Women head more than 85 percent of the 10.5 million single-parent families.

And almost half of the families headed by single mothers are poor, partly because women are paid 70 percent of men's earnings. In fact, a Census Bureau study showed that 43 percent of mothers who received welfare were employed at some point during the two-year study period.

The Senate version allowed states to continue spending at 80 percent of the 1994 budgetary levels for four years beginning in 1997; the House version contained no requirements for states to match federal welfare outlays or to continue state spending. It also gave states the option to deny assistance to additional children born to a family receiving welfare. Nevertheless, the Senate version would still push 3.5 million more people below the poverty line, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

Marion Kramer, founder of the Detroit-based National Welfare Rights Union, criticized the bill. "Congress is trying to take away the safety net for poor people and is ignoring the real causes of poverty," she said, during a speech at the Feminist Majority Expo '96 in Washington. "What is really needed is a program to push everyone forward to bring them out of poverty with training and jobs with liveable wages."

Kramer, who has organized welfare recipients to challenge public assistance policies, said that the extremist Republican leadership apparently "believes that the poor and the elderly are not needed anymore in this society, so Congress is going to throw them away.

"It is key that women and the victims of poverty step out and become the leaders," she said. "Our national policies need to changed to meet the real needs of people."

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