Congress Builds a Coffin

(The following appeared in the Congressional Record on December 12, 1995.)

We are now in the final days of the first session of the 104th Congress. In a short while we will have worked out some accommodations on the budget. We must do this, for we will now be engaged in the establishment of some measure of peace and lawful conduct in the Balkans. It would be unforgivable if we put our military in harm’s way abroad without first getting our affairs in some minimal order here at home.

I am fearful, however, that as we close out this session we will also close down the provision for aid to dependent children that dates back sixty years to the Social Security Act of 1935. If this should happen, and it very likely will, the first and foremost reason will be the monstrous political deception embodied in the term “Welfare reform.”

In my lifetime there has been no such Orwellian inversion of truth in the course of a domestic debate. “Welfare reform” in fact means welfare repeal. The repeal, that is, of Title IV-A of the Social Security Act. Everyone is to blame for this duplicity, everyone is an accomplice.

For practical purposes, we can begin with the celebrated “Contract with America,” which pledged that within one hundred days, a “Republican House” would vote on ten bills, including

  1. Welfare reform. The government should encourage people to work, not to have children out of wedlock.

This in itself was unexceptional, especially the second clause. By 1994, the nation had become alarmed by an unprecedented rise in illegitimacy, to ratios altogether ahistorical—from practically nil to almost one third in the course of a half-century. Since illegitimate children commonly end up supported by Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a causal connection was inferred. Not proven. We know desperately little about this great transformation, except that it is happening in all the industrial nations of the North Atlantic.

Undeterred, the new House majority promptly passed a bill which repealed AFDC. Such an act would have been unthinkable a year earlier, just as repealing Old Age pensions or Unemployment Compensation, other titles of the Social Security Act, would be today. At a minimum, it would have seemed cruel to children. But the new Republicans succeeded in entirely reversing the terms of the debate. Instead of aiding children, AFDC was said to harm them. Last month, a Republican member of the House remarked on the importance of child care:

Because our welfare reform package is going to remove people from welfare and get them to work. We understand that child care is a critical step to ending the cruelty of welfare dependency.

What once was seen as charity, or even social insurance, is redefined as cruelty.

This happens. Social problems are continuously redefined. Malcolm Gladwell of The Washington Post has noted that,

In the nineteenth century, the assumption had almost always been that a man without a job was either lazy or immoral …

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