'Operation Barn Door!" That's what a business journalist recently called President Bush's response to the accounting scandals that have shaken the nation. The tepid "corporate responsibility" law the President signed is too little, too late to prevent massive moral failure in boardrooms across America. That horse is well out of the barn, galloping downhill along with stock prices, jobs, consumer confidence, and hard-earned retirement funds.
Similarly, critics of welfare reform were labeled irresponsible doomsayers when they raised moral objections to the "personal responsibility" legislation that passed in 1996. But after five years of its sponsors' reports about the law's success in kicking people off welfare, major research studies now report that welfare reform harms families. Young children are going hungry, rushing to emergency rooms, being hospitalized and being abandoned at higher rates. Now it looks as if the doomsayers were also right, and the much-ballyhooed claims of welfare reform's success were premature.
Yet, as is the norm in U.S. politics, when the truth comes out, it's too late. The debate over welfare-reform reauthorization is starting to turn into another instance of "Operation Barn Door." Given the emerging evidence, could any amount of tweaking and tinkering transform this law into a moral response to poverty?
For some time there has been a consensus on welfare reform. Liberals have joined with conservatives to attack what they saw as the problem of "welfare dependency." But liberals were likely to remain in the coalition only if there were sufficient supports to help single mothers make the transition from welfare to work in ways that would not put them and their children in jeopardy. They pushed for more child care, more opportunities for education and training, more allowances for taking care of very young and sick children, and more protections for the many women on public assistance who are leaving violent partners.
Liberals often did not get what they were seeking, but they continued to work to make welfare reform better, because they thought it was the right thing to do. A "personal responsibility" act that simply pushed single mothers into low-wage jobs without making any provision for the care of their children was a contradiction in terms - it was irresponsible. It was immoral. It still is, and now the evidence proves it.
For most of its five-year history, welfare reform has floated along garnering praise for reducing caseloads, increasing work and reducing poverty, when in fact most of those developments occurred because the economy created more opportunities for just about everyone in our society, including the poor. In case you have not noticed, that boom economy is gone. It may not come back again, at least not any time soon. With the economy in the doldrums, increased opportunities for the poor are long gone.
Conservatives insist that the work ethic is an important moral principle. But strictly enforcing work on single mothers is itself immoral, if it is done without regard for the real-life struggles of single parents with few opportunities to find work that pays enough to keep their families afloat.
Yet this is what President Bush still insists we do. In a recent speech at a high school, he stated that single mothers on welfare who want to get an education that will help them find work at a decent wage are trying to cheat a system designed to enforce work. I wonder what the students who attended that school thought about their own educational pursuits when the President called people who want to go to college cheaters.
Welfare-reform reauthorization might well tweak the policies in place, but it will probably be too little, too late for the low-income families and children who need more than moral lectures about being personally responsible by working in whatever jobs the low-wage economy provides. The latest Operation Barn Door will not stop the immorality of a "reform" that abandons the most vulnerable members of society to poverty, homelessness and hunger.
Sanford F. Schram teaches social theory and policy in the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research at Bryn Mawr College.
Copyright 2002 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc