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Welfare: let's be careful where we cut.

Most people agree with President Clinton that we should change welfare as we know it - but how well do we know it? Here is what Catholics should keep in mind about the welfare-reform debate.

Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us, look and see our disgrace . . . We have become orphans, fatherless; widowed are our mothers. The water we drink we must buy, for our own wood we must pay. On our necks is the yoke of those who drove us; we are worn out, but allowed no rest. To Egypt we submitted, and to Assyria, to fill our need of bread. Our fathers, who sinned, are no more; but we bear their guilt.

Lamentations 5:1-7

Rhonda Johnson, whether she likes it or not, has become the subject of an intense battle in Washington. She's one of those TV-watching, couch-sitting, not-working welfare mothers everyone's been hearing about lately.

At least, that's the myth everyone's been hearing. Johnson can tell you otherwise. During the nine months she received a monthly payment from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the government entitlement check that most people associate with welfare, she was able to count out $268. She received another $100 in food stamps.

Following the breakup of her marriage and then a move to Chicago away from her husband in New York, Johnson had to support herself, her 9-year-old daughter, and their $425-a-month rent with this government disbursement.

It's hard to imagine how that paltry sum could become the focus of such fierce resentment among the body politic of U.S. taxpayers. But it's not too hard when you add Johnson's check to about 5 million others and you reach an annual entitlement expense of about $22 billion for AFDC alone (the federal government and individual states each contribute about half to that total) and another $27 billion to the food stamps program.

At the individual level, though, the average national monthly AFDC payment of $373 for a woman with two children puts most welfare recipients well below the acknowledged poverty level in the United States. Johnson doesn't even want to talk about what it was like getting by during the nine months she received AFDC (she has since found work), other than to say, "Nobody should have to live like that. The money is gone in the first week and you're scrambling around borrowing money to pay for the next three weeks. . . . It was very difficult."

Her difficulties weren't eased any when, unable to afford rent on the private-housing market, she was forced to take up shelter in one of Chicago's notoriously downtrodden and dangerous public-housing projects.

"Everyone has their welfare horror stories," Johnson says.

These days it seems as if ending those horror stories has become the goal of every member of the 104th Congress. When candidate Bill Clinton first spoke of "ending welfare as we know it," he was probably not counting on facing a Republican Senate and House to do it with.

His proposals for welfare reform, which first horrified many advocates for people on public aid, are now recalled almost fondly by them in the barrage of Republican alternatives that followed. President Clinton's reform plan called for a two-year time limit on public aid, greater ties to educational and job-training programs for recipients while they were on aid, and a "family cap" - children born to women already receiving AFDC would get no additional coverage.

The Republican proposals that have been advanced in the last year briefly nod in passing to those ideas but then call for a real end to welfare as we've known it - turning over AFDC to the states to administer as they see fit and, critics say, for perhaps only as long as the money lasts. Given the current congressional atmosphere, observers in Washington say that the president's more modest welfare-reform proposals are "dead on arrival."

Whose welfare?

The trouble with discussion about obliterating welfare "as we know it" is that one person's idea of a legitimate entitlement is another person's welfare payoff. Depending on who you ask and how the figure is calculated, public aid to poor Americans - everything from direct payments and food stamps to job training and housing subsidies - cost American taxpayers anywhere between $150 and $180 billion in 1994. That's a figure that raises the hackles of millions of middle-class Americans.

However, if you were to point out those subsidies and government programs that could be called their middle-class welfare payoff, these same people would likely proffer a gauntlet of perfectly reasonable justifications for continuing them. Tax relief on mortgage interest, enjoyed by homeowners across the nation's vast middle class, cost the federal government almost $60 billion last year.

Many Social Security recipients, who may be long paid back for their investment in the system and who have pensions that already provide all the financial security they might need, can still count on their monthly checks and on automatic annual cost-of-living adjustments. Subsidies to farmers cost $16 billion last year, with a considerable chunk of cash even finding its way to pay tobacco farmers not to grow their crop. Veterans' programs, which are used by just 3 percent of U.S. veterans according to the conservative Hoover Institution, cost $37 billion.

Corporations enjoy abatements and subsidies that arguably are designed to encourage business and job growth but that in practice do things like pay millions to the astoundingly profitable McDonalds corporation to subsidize advertising overseas. The Democratic Leadership Council estimates that these benefits (which Labor Secretary Robert Reich calls "Aid to Dependent Corporations") cost the federal treasury anywhere between $40 billion and $75 billion a year. A Leadership Council report cites 68 corporate programs that it argues do little to help the economy - billions spent to subsidize the sale of timber and agricultural products overseas, subsidize oil companies, or provide grants to private utilities.

Somehow, however, anger over government wastefulness has focused on the 1 percent of the federal budget doled out to nearly 5 million families in the U.S. living at the border of subsistence. "You wonder where all this fervor is coming from," says Sharron Matthews, director of the Public Welfare Coalition in Chicago. "We're making scapegoats out of the most vulnerable people in America."

In the highly politicized atmosphere that has enveloped the current debate, Matthews worries that it has become impossible now for either party to create a good policy on welfare. "Now the president feels he's got to out-Republican the Republicans" and what started out as a bad idea to begin with "just gets worse."

When taking the political scalpel to the budget, as lawmakers are promising to do in the coming years, it's fair to say that budget incisions may not always be made in the area s where the cutting will hurt real people the least. Unfortunately, poor people and children are not noted for their diligent voting habits.

Father Fred Kammer, S.J. is the national president of Catholic Charities USA. To him, current discussions on the direction of welfare reform have a disturbingly familiar air. It has always been, even back to biblical times, he says, the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner among us who have been the most vulnerable in society. "It's no irony that these are precisely the people who are being targeted by reform plans," Kammer says. It is also these three groups who are specifically cited in scripture as deserving of the special protection and care of the mainstream.

Let's get personal

The Personal Responsibility Act, the package of measures that Republicans promise will reform welfare, is one of the foundation stones of the much heralded Republican Contract with America. Among the provisions of the act are the complete denial of any public-aid benefits to even legal aliens and their children, the permanent denial of benefits to children born to women younger than 18, the denial of benefits to any additional children born to a woman already receiving AFDC, and a lifetime public-aid limit of five years.

What can get lost in the political rhetoric, particularly around the idea of denying AFDC benefits to families, is that Republican proposals still call for federal monies to be disbursed for public aid. But the money previously committed to AFDC will go to the states in the form of block grants, not the families (and only after a reduction of between 5 and 10 percent). The Contract with America's reforms call for states to use these block grants to create their own programs for AFDC families. Those programs could include group homes that would act as transitional-living and life-skills programs for teen mothers or orphanages for children of teen mothers who are persuaded to hand over to the state.

One of the key players in whatever plan eventually gets accepted is Missouri Representative Jim Talent. Mention Talent's name to a Washington lefty lobbyist and you will illicit a spontaneous groan of despair and derision. Talent is the kind of guy who keeps liberal think tankers awake deep into a restless night. He is not likely to lose any sleep himself over this information, however.

Depending on who you ask, Talent's Rebuilding the American Family Act is either the most draconian of all Republican welfare-reform proposals or the one most likely to tough love the poor off their public-aid addiction. However you view his plan, after a conversation with Talent, it's hard to doubt his sincerity.

"This isn't rhetoric to me," he says about his work on welfare reform. "This system is hurting people far more than the transfer of wealth is helping them. I agree with 'first do no harm' [Kammer's comment at a recent congressional hearing on welfare]. But this system is harming people."

The essence of Talent's argument can be found in the summary of his bill: "The only way to 'end welfare as we know it' is to end welfare as we know it. It is too late for minor changes that leave the fundamental problems in place. Too many futures depend on it. Too many children will be condemned to lives of desperation if we fail to act now to radically revise and reform our national welfare system. The prime cause of America's social problems is not poverty - it is welfare."

Talent's position is simply that it is out-of-wedlock births and the soul-consuming nature of the welfare experience itself that is at the heart of a gamut of other social ills that afflict poor communities. He offers up studies that indicate black teens from welfare families are twice as likely as teens from non-welfare families with the same income to drop out of high school or end up in jail.

His opponents, naturally, can offer studies that dispute these conclusions. Talent bases a lot of his bill on the work of Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation and Charles Murray from the American Enterprise Institute, two conservative Washington think tanks.

Talent gets a little hot at suggestions that he is insensitive to the problems of people who are poor. "Insensitive?" he asks. "You want to know what's insensitive? Insensitive is sending people a subsidy every month and then just sweeping them under the rug.

"We have got to get back to caring about people again in this country and not just paying them off to be quiet. I don't think we can survive as a nation with a growing difference between the haves and the have-nots, not just economically but also culturally."

It is resolving this culture gap that is at the heart of Talent's proposal. For too long, he would argue, social mechanics have attempted to adjust a litany of U.S. social ills, such as teen crime, pregnancy, drug use, or the collapsing education system, while missing the problem he feels lies at the center of all the others - the diminishing stability of the traditional family. "We have got to put families back together if we're going to do anything about these other problems," he says.

"We're recognizing that implicitly financial incentives do affect when people make the decision to have a family. People are making decisions that are voluntary. I don't think poor people have kids to get on welfare; they have kids for the same reason as everybody else has - a lot of middle class people have kids for the wrong reasons, too, but most of them waited until they were married. We've got to teach teenage girls that the way to solve your problems is marriage and work - not pregnancy."

Talent points out that it's not illogical, for instance, for a young man to walk away from a pregnant girlfriend - maybe even several - as long as the federal government has established the expectation that the state will assume responsibility for the child. "I don't think young people today see that kid as their responsibility." It is this overall "setting," he argues, that must be changed before teen pregnancy rates will come down.

Catholic Charities USA's Deputy for Social Policy Sharon Daly does not for a second doubt that Talent is well-intentioned. But that's about the only positive thing she has to say about his proposals. "I feel Mr. Talent has tried very hard to learn a lot about this issue," she says, "but he has learned it from academics and think tanks like the Heritage Foundation instead of from the people on the front lines who are working with teens. All of these reform ideas are based on theories being developed by a lot of people sitting behind computers in offices, and they are views that are not shared by people who work every day with poor people.

"There is no one in the world who is more against out-of-wedlock pregnancy - out-of-wedlock sex for that matter - than the Catholic Church. We've been teaching this for 2,000 years; we didn't discover it two years ago. But no one working in the church thinks we can reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies with financial incentives by more than a few percentage points. What we're worried about is that what we may see is more abortions because what we're doing is putting more pressure on women trying to deal with crisis pregnancies."

Jim Talent doesn't agree. He thinks the Republican plan - whether it more closely resembles his proposal in the end or the one espoused in the Contract with America - will discourage abortion because it encourages marriage. Talent says that under his plan the "pool of people" who may feel financially pressured into abortions - that is, single mothers - would be smaller in the long term. Ultimately, he argues, that would mean fewer abortions.

Teen mothers

One of the girls Catholic Charities works with in Chicago is 16-year-old "Alma," a student at Chicago's Arts of Living alternative high school who has a 6 1/2-month-old daughter.

Alma's perspective as a teen mother is perhaps as contradictory as the nation's own attitude toward welfare. A good percentage of the public think of people on welfare as lazy, unwilling to work, satisfied with life on their meager public dole. Alma shares the public's disdain. She distinguishes herself from other women who collect welfare. "You see some of these women, they start out as teen mothers but after they graduate and they've been on it for two years or so, they just decide to stay on it.

"They're too lazy to go out and look for work or maybe they go look for work for a week and then they give up. They're just abusing the system. I'm going to get a part-time job and support my baby."

Under the Contract's proposals, she would not be eligible as a teen to receive a welfare check to support her daughter unless she agreed to live at home with her parents - a family life a lot of teen mothers are often attempting to escape - or at whatever group-living arrangement Illinois would be able to arrange with its federal block grant. Her last option would be to surrender her daughter to the state for foster care or adoption.

It's that final alternative that outrages a lot of advocates. They argue that it's simply immoral to separate mothers from their children based on their poverty rather than on their abilities as parents. They add that it's also more costly. A group home can cost $40,000 or more per child to run. Certainly more, advocates say, than it costs to keep an indigent child at home.

For her part, Alma is convinced that AFDC will prove only a short phenomenon in her life. The intelligence and energy she exhibits in conversation offer the hope that it is not simply the arrogance of youth at work when she fires off casual responses to a litany of the obstacles that await her. How is she going to get off AFDC? She's going to find a job. How is she going to stay in school? The job she gets will be only part time. Who will take care of her baby when she's at work or school? Her aunt. How will she earn enough to get by? Her uncle doesn't expect her to pay rent. "As soon as I get a job, I'm going to be off aid," Alma insists.

Let's hope her luck holds and that family support remains. She allows that not all the girls in her program can count on the same kind of help from their relatives.

She's glad to get the $278 a month that AFDC provides for her and the care of her child but says if she didn't get it, she'd find a way somehow. "It'd be harder to get by [without the money]. It's hard now."

Still, from her perspective, the critics of the current welfare system speak some truth. "What they're doing is right in some ways and it's wrong in other ways," she says. Alma thinks a lot of the neighbors she sees collecting welfare could find work if they were forced to. She says her situation is different, though. "I think it's wrong to take away the AFDC from teen mothers who just made a mistake. I mean, it's a mistake," she says. "[AFDC] helps them; it has helped me."

Alma's analysis fits into the national experience of Catholic Charities' agencies, says Daly. According to her, Catholic Charities has had great success with the 40,000 teen mores it works with each year, but she says that early intervention with adequate financial resources is critical to that success. "The AFDC check is an important bridge [for teen mothers]. If they have to find a job without a high-school diploma, they're going to be on welfare their whole lives."

Can we risk reform?

Shifting public aid away from entitlement status and onto the arguably shakier platform of the federal block grant is perhaps the notion that critics of the Contract with America complain the loudest about. What happens in an emergency, when the money runs out, or if a recession hits?

"The basic problem," a lawyer for Chicago's Public Welfare Coalition says, "is that they're changing what America is all about in terms of entitlements. People are entitled to eat; people are entitled to have housing; people are entitled to expect that government is there when they're in need."

Talent calls fears that states may not use their federal welfare cut altogether wisely or not come through on their own if the funds run out "a valid concern." He also says it would be nothing new. "We have that problem now. A lot of states don't fund up to the federal maximum benefit level."

Also valid, he says, are concerns about "what happens if some of the assumptions of this bill don't work or if there's a recession or if the administrative costs or the number of people receiving welfare don't go down.

"There is some risk. There is no change without risk." And Talent says he would agree that these risks would not be worth taking "if I thought the existing system was operating well."

He still believes public aid will be distributed much better by states than it is now - coadministered by state and federal government. Individual states can establish their own guidelines and adjust for their particular needs. He thinks that flexibility will unleash some new creativity in how public aid is disbursed and what its effect will be.

Daly is not as confident in the ability of states to respond. "They expect this to happen sort of by magic; you know, somehow we're going to see this great unleashing of creativity and streamlining at the state level to make up for these cuts." She calls that confidence in the decentralization of relief programs "a kind of romanticism." Certainly, it is not a new romanticism in American life. Political theorists have been arguing over federalism since the earliest days of the United States.

"One of the things we believe as Catholics is that no one is above sin; original sin is universal," Daly says. States are just as vulnerable to the bureaucratic bungling and bloating that critics associate with Washington, she says. "Look at what states have done with the flexibility they do have."

As Talent pointed out, states already enjoy a wide discretion over how much they allot to their individual AFDC programs since they have to match a percentage of whatever federal dollars they spend. As a result, the variance in AFDC payments can be astonishing.

To support a family of three, Alaska pays $923 a month through AFDC, a national high. In Mississippi the same family unit receives the national low of $120. Few states pay up to the "standard of need," the amount their own number crunchers decide is the minimum requirement for survival. Another of the dreaded welfare bureaucracies likely to be "reformed" by this Congress is the Food Stamp and other nutrition programs - the same programs, in other words, initially established to bridge the chasm between the states' standards of need and the amount of cash they were actually willing to dole out.

"I'm very interested that they're not proposing to send Social Security back to the states," Daly says, "because they know that elderly people would quite properly get organized and throw the bums out. But poor people can't do that."

Deja view

"We've been here before," Daly says, referring to the cuts in social spending and reliance on state block grants that took place under President Reagan's administration. Since those years, the number of people Catholic Charities sees coming into its offices for emergency food and shelter has jumped from 1 million in 1981 to more than 10 million last year. "And a lot Of the people we see are not on welfare; they're people who are working every day" - people who became ineligible for AFDC or food stamps under previous cutbacks and who now "cannot make it through a month without a donated bag of groceries from their parish."

It's not likely that even the most ardent critics of AFDC want to see that spectacle become more widespread. At the same time, even liberals acknowledge that something must be done about the current system.

"There's no doubt in anyone's mind that this system needs reforming," says Joyce Bowen, who heads the board of directors of Chicago's Public Welfare Coalition, "but what form should it take?" Bowen would like to see welfare reform include "adequate time for people to adjust from welfare to work, from dependence to independence." She believes that's going to require not only better job training and educational opportunities for people on welfare, but also that child care is provided so that welfare mothers can pursue work.

The current welfare mess, she says, "didn't happen overnight. This is the result of policies throughout many years. I can't believe that anyone in good conscience can believe that we can solve these problems overnight. I think at least you will need a transition period, some time to get back to normal. And getting back to normal doesn't mean snatching the rug out from people. We need transitional strategies to help people work themselves off of welfare."

Bowen's idea of reform, needless to say, would mean spending more money on welfare, not less. Current proposals are seeking significant reductions in public-assistance costs. One unlikely supporter for spending more money on the kinds of transitional programs that Bowen envisions, however, is tough-lover Jim Talent. He agrees that spending more money now could mean bigger savings later as people permanently remove themselves from public aid, and says he is willing to listen to ideas on the subject. One of his congressional aides assures that to Talent "reforming the system is a higher priority than saving money."

Back to health care

But there are other challenges besides finding meaningful employment to families trying to cash their last public-dole check. "There are many people who are able to get off welfare and to get work, but in six months they're back because their health-care benefits terminate," Bowen says. "People are not going to put themselves in jeopardy if they don't have to." The lack of universal health care remains one of the greatest obstacles ahead of welfare parents.

In an irony that is truly American, people remain covered by Medicaid virtually only as long as they are on public aid. Propelling themselves off welfare and in to the job market means they're likely to join the 40 million or so other citizens currently without health insurance. As then-candidate Bill Clinton observed in 1992, there can be no welfare reform without health-care reform. Having already savaged the Clinton health-care proposal without coming up with a workable alternative, Congress may have set itself an impossible task as it switches its focus to welfare reform.

But Congress these days seems to have developed an appetite for the apparently impossible by committing itself to increased defense spending and a middle-class tax cut at the same time it undertakes a budget-balancing act by 2002. Bowen fears that when political push comes to shove and the hard budget decisions are made, it will be the poor - particularly public-aid recipients - who will be literally left out in the cold. "I definitely see that many of these proposals are potentially life threatening. I mean people could die."

Under Republican proposals the federal government would have to cut $1 trillion from its budget by 2002. If Congress adheres to its pledges on defense and tax reductions, it will mean all other federal programs will have to be cut between 30 and 40 percent.

A Congressional Budget Office analysis indicates that the proposed Balanced Budget Amendment combined with middle-class tax cuts would mean huge cost shifts from the federal government to the states. The biggest losing states, New York and California, would need to raise $26.4 and $38.5 billion respectively on their own to meet current spending levels.

Faced with the prospect of at least double-digit tax increases to cover the loss of federal dollars, it's likely that most state politicians - at least those who plan to be reelected - will seek to cut state budgets. Their likely targets will have to include programs for the poor.

For his part, Talent argues that all of these goals are achievable and that all of the money saved in diminished administrative costs will ensure that funding levels remain adequate for people in need in the United States. Whether or not it makes sense to tackle all of America's fiscal woes simultaneously ha s almost become beside the point. Talent argues that the country no longer has any choice in the matter.

"We've got to bring the federal budget under control or we'll wind up with a bankrupt government, and then the most vulnerable will really be hurt." Despite all the worst-case scenarios swirling around his arguments, Talent remains a political optimist.

"I think we can make all these changes with surprisingly little impact on existing programs. The federal budget is a $1.5 trillion program that's never been policed. I think we can probably do a better job for the poor and the aged even with reduced spending." He adds, "If we can't do a better job with the money we're spending, we might as well go home."

We are a community

Don't get Father Fred Kammer wrong; he says he's all for welfare reform. Nobody could soundly argue that the current system works, after all.

He even finds a lot in the broad goals of Republican proposals that as a Catholic leader he has little to argue with - such as reducing out-of-wed-lock births, encouraging marriage, getting teen mothers to stay with their families or join a group home, increasing attention on absentee fathers. "There is some kinship there with some of these ideas. We don't believe a young teen mother should just be given a check and sent off alone to an apartment somewhere."

Still, his concern about where reform may be heading is clear. Catholics who want to begin ruminating about their positions on welfare reform "can start with one basic idea," he says. "Human dignity is the foundation of our sense of Catholic social teaching."

Will current reform ideas preserve or diminish human dignity, he asks. "We are a community, a community that doesn't cut out its weakest members."

Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, Ohio is another Catholic leader who has been casting a worried eye on the current debate. "One of the features of reform that we would recommend would be preserving a safety net for the most vulnerable," he says. "We can't support reform that will make things more difficult for poor children. . . . The nation needs to reform welfare, not abandon it."

Complaining that the current system is overly bureaucratic, discourages work, and breaks up families, Malone says, "We are not defenders of the welfare status quo, but we're also against the federal government abandoning its role. We would look for a new social contract which promotes greater responsibility to families and offers new help to families to leave poverty behind through meaningful work."

What might real welfare reform look like to Malone? "True reform," he says, "strengthens family life, encourages and rewards work, preserves that safety net. It invests in human dignity, and it builds a public and private partnership in addressing welfare and overcoming poverty.

"Genuine reform should rely on incentives, not punishments that would hurt children and promote abortion." Malone adds, "In the long run real welfare reform will save money, but in the short run reform will mean new investments. The idea that we can cut costs and transfer responsibility - that's not real reform."

However the debate over welfare reform shapes up, Catholics should be involved in the decision making, says Malone.

"I have often reflected on the fact that there is no institution in U.S. life as committed to the basic values of family, work, and sexual restraint than the Catholic Church. At the same time we are committed to principles of justice and solidarity with the needs of the poor."

In a debate on welfare, he says, Catholics should "talk about a welfare reform that meets the needs of people, not the political needs of people in Washington. That would mean a program geared to moving people from dependency to meaningful work and one not just seeking a shift of responsibility."

The poor come first

Past Catholic social teaching indicates that U.S. Catholics may have no choice but to be involved in the current debate. The preferential option for the poor first espoused by South American bishops at the 1968 Medellin Conference, and later reconfirmed by U.S. bishops in their 1986 pastoral letter "Economic Justice for All," calls Catholics to safeguard the legitimate needs of poor people as the first priority of society.

In years past, Pope John Paul II has repeatedly referred to the Catholic Church as the "church of the poor." And in Rome in 1984 he commented: "I have made and I do make this option. I identify myself with it. I feel it could not be otherwise, since it is the eternal message of the gospel. This is the option Christ made, the option made by the apostles, the option of the church throughout its 2,000 years of history."

Of course, how Catholics interpret the preferential option for the poor can easily land them on either side of the reform debate: embracing Talent's tough-love policy or advocating increased funding for the transitional programs that Malone and Bowen support.

For her part, back in Chicago, Rhonda Johnson is not waiting for America's Catholics to make up their minds. She's organizing. Johnson and several other current or one-time public-aid recipients have started an advocacy and educational group, Women About Reform. She knows she has to get the message out to women on public aid about how current proposals might affect them. She just wishes that other people were joining in the conversations her group is having.

"Real reform to me would be to talk to real public-aid recipients, people trying to get their lives turned around, people who have been on the bottom and know what it's like. I don't think that anyone who is living in a suburb really understands what it's like in a poor community. They need to broaden their horizons a little and talk to the people who can really help them put together a plan that would work.

"Most people don't want to be on public aid or live in the projects. They're just stuck, and they don't know how to get out. I had to work very hard; it wasn't easy. I had to find my own support network."

Johnson has found work at the Chicago Urban League but isn't ready to call hers a success story - yet. She says she is still in a period of transition between public aid and true independence, but she's determined to achieve that independence and get away permanently from life on the American dole.

"No," she says with a note of not just hope but certainty in her voice, "I'm not going back there."

RELATED ARTICLE: It is God who hears their cries

"The justice of a community is measured by its treatment of the powerless in society, most often described as the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the stranger . . . What these people have in common is their vulnerability and lack of power. They are often alone and have no protector or advocate. Therefore it is God who hears their cries, and the king who is God's anointed is commanded to have special concern for them."

- "Economic Justice for All: A Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy," 1986, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, No. 38.

RELATED ARTICLE: Welfare reform in the 20th century

1935 - It is the height of the Great Depression and the nation's husbands and fathers are leaving their families in search of work - sometimes never to return.

Congress passes the Social Security Act, which creates AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

1946 - The national school-lunch program is created, and the Employment Act, seeking to "promote higher standards of living and full employment," is passed.

1950 - The Aid to Permanently and Totally Disabled program is established.

1964 - The Economic Opportunity Act is signed, launching President Lyndon Johnson's vision of the Great Society and authorizing the Food Stamp program, legal aid for the poor, the Headstart program, Emergency Food and Medical Services, and educational and job-training programs.

1965 - Amendments to the Social Security Act establishes the Medicaid program, offering federal grants to the states for providing comprehensive medical services to low-income families.

1967 - Congress begins tinkering with AFDC, initiating the Work Incentive program and tying AFDC eligibility to work-training programs.

1969 - Perhaps not best remembered as a bleeding heart, President Richard Nixon nevertheless proposes a family assistance plan, calling for a guaranteed minimum cash income to all families having children. Congress does not pass the Nixon plan.

1974 - The Supplemental Security Income program is initiated, bringing income assistance to aged, blind, and disabled persons and replacing programs previously administered by the states.

1975 - Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for low-wage families becomes a permanent part of the Internal Revenue Service code.

1981 - Congress passes the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, reducing AFDC and food-stamp benefits as well as benefits from other social-welfare programs.

1985 - Legislation requiring states to adopt employment and training programs for food-stamp recipients is passed.

1986 - Congress passes the Tax Reform Act, making many poor families exempt from paying federal income taxes and increasing the EITC.

1988 - Welfare is reformed under the Family Support Act, which revises AFDC education and job-training requirements and requires states for the first time to provide aid (AFDC-UP) to two-parent households where the principal wage earner is unemployed.

Such aid was previously optional and led to one of the main criticisms of AFDC: by offering aid only to single-parent households, it encouraged the desertion of families by fathers and other providers.

Kevin Clarke, freelance writer in Chicago and editor for SALT OF THE EARTH magazine.
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Title Annotation:includes related article; welfare reform
Author:Clarke, Kevin
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:May 1, 1995
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