WHAT ELSE might we accomplish if we didn't give back 1.6 trillion dollars in tax cuts, about half of the money to millionaires? For starters, we could end poverty in America - by making sure that work pays a living wage and that children don't pay the price when mothers work.
In 1996, President Clinton and the Republican Congress ended welfare as we knew it. Welfare was replaced with a new program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. This compromise put time limits on public assistance and required recipients to find jobs - but also added supports to help single mothers of small children succeed at work. Luckily for its sponsors, the program coincided with an economic boom, so jobs were plentiful.
Details were left to the states. Some chose to help welfare mothers improve their living standards through paid employment, with child care, job training, and outreach to make sure families got the Medicaid and food stamps they needed. Other states just slashed the rolls, and created Kafkaesque obstacles to benefits, even benefits intended to facilitate work.
Overall, the number of people on public aid has been cut by more than half. But most of the ex-welfare people now working are still poor. The typical wage of a former welfare recipient is under $8 an hour, and often under $6.
Researchers find that 30 to 40 percent of people who have left welfare are actually worse off economically, including at least a million children. And this doesn't even count the social cost of having millions of children in makeshift day care, or fending for themselves while mothers try to hold on to jobs. Many mothers are one sick child away from losing both a job and a reduced package of aid.
When former President Clinton pledged to end welfare as we know it, he also promised that people who work hard and play by the rules would not be poor. But society has not delivered its part of the bargain.
The program comes up for renewal next year. What might we do? First, let's truly make work pay. The program gives block-grants to states and rewards them with bonuses for meeting goals. But the goals should not just be cutting the rolls. States should also be rewarded based on whether they give former recipients the tools to succeed at work. And more money, say $10 billion a year, could be put into the program to increase work and training supports, so that ex-welfare recipients could get on career ladders and not just rotate in and out of dead-end jobs.
Second, the whole point of ending welfare was to break the cycle of dependency, in which teenage girls became pregnant and bear children, teenage boys take no responsibility for the babies they father, and daughters follow mothers into the welfare life. But if nobody is minding the children of single working mothers, how do we expect to save these children from the streets? Where will the next generation learn responsibility?
Most other advanced countries have universal day care at public expense, as well as prekindergarten programs taught by professionals, that get kids ready for school. The provoucher ads that you see, bemoaning how badly American kids do in standard tests compared with European ones, don't tell you about Europe's far higher quality child care and prekindergarten programs. Comprehensive prekindergarten and better child care could cost another $50 to $75 billion a year.
Third, we could combine a higher minium wage with a more generous earned income tax credit. This would reward paid work, not just for the people who have recently left welfare but for the millions more who were never on welfare, and who can barely support their families. A more generous tax rebate for working families with children would cost another $50 billion a year.
These outlays, together, add up to less money than the proposed Bush tax cut. But President Bush has put forward a coherent vision and his opponents, alas, have not. Bush thinks government should shrink and taxes should be cut, even if the benefit goes mostly to rich people who don't need it. This is a vision I deplore, but has the virtue of clarity.
The Democrats, sadly, are treating this like a technical budget debate: adjust the tax cut here, add a little spending there. Instead, they should be treating it as a grand debate about values. Do we pamper the rich - or reward work and nurture kids?
That's a debate we could win. What's lacking is leadership, imagination, and clear purpose.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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