The budget of the Health and Human Services Department does not have much to say about welfare this year. Neither did HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson at his carefully staged budget briefing at a Boys and Girls Club -- even though he was a pioneer in welfare reform as governor of Wisconsin.
He noted, with thankfulness in his voice, that renewal of welfare reform doesn't come up until 2002. The glamour topics this year -- and recipients of big budget increases -- are the National Institutes of Health, which may produce breakthroughs on cancer and Alzheimer's and a vaccine for AIDS. This is a budget for winners.
The controversial welfare reform bill passed in 1995 has not yet faced the test of hard times. It is, however, called a success -- the rolls have shrunk.
The April 9 issue of the New Yorker contains a brilliant and touching account of a welfare reform success story, who now makes $39,000 a year at two jobs and has no time for her three needy children. Katherine Boo, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter, gets into the life of her subject; she also gets into her skin.
A single mother with three children, Elizabeth Jones, also known as Cookie, lives in Anacostia, a forsaken corner of Washington, where violence -- gunfire, arson, rape and break-ins -- is commonplace. Her neighborhood is called Shrimp Boat after a run-down restaurant. She is bright and driven, and as torn as her upscale suburban counterpart who tries to reconcile the roles of wage-earner and mother. In Cookie's case, it is harder because she exists on two hours' sleep, snatched between her night-shift job as a cop and her part-timer with a security company.
The mass exodus of mothers for the workplace, and the unintended, although foreseeable, consequence of neglected children, needs attention. Boo writes of "free-range children at the mercy of unreformed institutions."
The institutions in Cookie's life are spectacularly unresponsive. She is a tiger-mother, who tries to find a challenging school for her preteen daughter, Drenika, who is on fire for the worthless boy down the street. Cookie's older son, Wayne, doesn't speak but draws and builds structures out of scraps. He is called retarded and diagnosed dyslexic. A private Maryland school discovers he is neither. Dernard, the youngest, has a million questions Cookie never has time to answer.
She takes her daughter out of the neighborhood school with a high illiteracy rate and sends her to one said to be better. Boo visits a geography class at the Ronald H. Brown Middle School, where the teacher assigns an essay and turns on her boombox.
Cookie shoulders Dernard into a charter school, which she goes to visit one day: The children sit in silence at empty desks in front of a teacher who is also staring into space. Maybe the charter school enthusiast in the White House could check out the Robert Louis Johnson Jr. Arts and Technology Academy. Cookie, departing in wrath, says, "It's like people think that in this part of town we settle for anything."
The history is that public schools in the nation's capital are so bad that people just throw up their hands. As first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton at one time proposed to make their improvement her major concern but gave up in short order.
Only one person helped. Andre Ford is a mailman who founded and coaches a football team for 8- to 14-year-olds that plays on a field the District sometimes forgets to mow. Ford gives his Bison what they crave, acknowledgment of their existence, and "a chance to be something."
What could the government do to help the Elizabeth Joneses in our midst? Better schools would help, after-school programs. Maybe arrange part-time work and a little subsidy so she could spend more time with her children?
Peter Edelman, onetime aide to Robert F. Kennedy and distinguished public policy maker, resigned from HHS to protest Bill Clinton's hard-nosed welfare reform bill. He tells the story in his book "Searching for America's Heart." He thought that elimination of cash assistance after five years on the rolls and the treatment of legal immigrants was harsh, and, well, un-American.
Edelman estimates that there are 3 million people who have lost welfare and can't find jobs, and somebody better start thinking of them soon.
"What happens to children is almost not on the screen," he says sadly.
Mary McGrory is a syndicated columnist.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.