Fate of Poor Women on Congressional "Chopping Block"

by Mea Arnold

NOW Action V.P. Rosemary Dempsey joins NAACP's Wade Henderson in denouncing welfare cuts proposed by Congress.

Repeatedly delayed plans for when the Senate would finally debate the welfare reform bill were like the story of the little shepherd boy who cried "wolf" too many times. But unfortunately for many poor women, and for millions of women who may unexpectedly find themselves poor, the wolf is now at the door as the Senate passed its version of "welfare reform" by a margin of 87 to 12.

 Only slightly less punitive than the House version, the Senate bill would end the 60-year-old guarantee of aid for the poor and turn over to the states responsibility for the social safety net. The bill replaces the nation's basic cash welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, with a block grant, or direct cash payment of federal funds to the states. That would end the long-standing system under which the federal government matches state spending on welfare and any eligible poor person is guaranteed benefits.

 The Senate version sets a lifetime limit of five years on welfare benefits, requires recipients to be in the paid workforce and reduces spending by more than $65 billion over seven years. The bill also greatly restricts benefits under the Supplemental Security Income program, which aids the elderly and people with disabilities. The federal government estimates that this change alone would mean that nearly a fifth of the children receiving benefits in 1994, or 157,000 children, would eventually be ineligible.

 Senate opponents of the bill were harsh in their criticism saying it would place struggling families at even greater risk. "There is a right way and a wrong way to reform welfare," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "Punishing children is the wrong way . . . The Senate is on the brink of committing legislative child abuse."

 Originally the Senate was due to bring up welfare legislation the beginning of June, shortly after the Senate Finance Committee completed its work on the bill. But a revolt by many senators from high population growth states opposed to the funding formula for the new welfare block grants derailed that timetable.

 The second target date was the beginning of July but that passed due to protracted negotiations. At issue were both the funding formula and the controversial child exclusion provisions which penalize children born to mothers on welfare.

 Once senators reached agreement on the funding formula, Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., brought the bill to the floor. Debate began Aug. 7, but a lack of votes among conservative Republicans forced Dole to pull the bill the next day.

 When the Senate returned from its August recess, Sen. Dole further amended the welfare bill to include the child exclusion provisions as a way to bring more conservatives on board. He added the "family cap," which denies benefits for additional children born to mothers already on welfare. And he added the "illegitimacy ratio," which rewards states with more money if they reduce out-of-wedlock births without increasing abortions.

 More than 200 amendments to the welfare bill were filed as debate heated up in early September. The family cap language was removed by a vote of 66-34. Two separate attempts by Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., to deny benefits to teen mothers were defeated as well.

 However, an attempt by Sen. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., to strike the illegitimacy ratio language failed by a vote of 37-63, with several solid abortion rights senators voting incorrectly. Since the House bill also has illegitimacy ratio language, it will be in the final bill.

 Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill., was the only woman voting against it, and one of only 11 moderates opposing it.

 Though he voted in favor of the bill, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said if the more punitive House version prevails when the two sides meet to craft the final bill, he will vote against it and recommend a presidential veto.

 "If welfare reform remains a bipartisan effort to promote work, protect children and collect child support from people who ought to pay it, we will have welfare reform this year," Clinton said in a speech in Florida. "But if the Congress gives in to extremist pressure and walks away from this bipartisan American common ground, they will kill welfare reform."

 Throughout the process, NOW has opposed both the House and Senate welfare bills. We have sponsored protests, lobby visits, news conferences, the April 9 Rally for Women's Lives, phone campaigns and local actions, as well as a sit-in at the committee hearing which had refused testimony from welfare recipients.

 The two versions must first be reconciled by the Conference Committee before going back to the House and Senate for another vote, giving Senators another opportunity to jump ship depending on what is presented to them. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., predicted that Congress would pass a finally bill by Thanksgiving.

 The last place we can stop this legislation is at the White House. Although President Clinton has commented favorably on some parts of the Senate bill, such as more funding for child care, he said he didn't like many parts of the House bill. So a veto may not be not out of the question, even from a president who vowed to "end welfare as we know it."

 To put public pressure on President Clinton, in early September NOW launched a campaign called "A Million Voices for Economic Justice." The goal is to send a million postcards t President Clinton urging him to veto any welfare legislation that contains child exclusion measures, eliminates entitlements, denies assistance to legal residents and sets time limits without regard for need. For additional copies of the postcard, contact the Welfare Rights Team at the NOW Action Center at 202-628-8669.

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