To the Editors:

I am enclosing a copy of a letter to President Clinton from members of the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, sent last month, that we thought might be of interest to your readers. To us, this issue transcends the election, and, if the Democrats have a majority in the new Congress, the fight will still be going strong next spring. Thus, the issues discussed in the letter will be of continuing importance for many months to come.

Robert N. Bellah
University of California, Berkeley

Dear President Clinton:

We are writing to express our dismay at your action of August 22 in signing the welfare “reform” legislation sent to you by Congress. We were apprehensive with your 1992 promise to “end welfare as we know it,” given how inadequate the American welfare system has become, but we were somewhat reassured when, early in your first term, you sent Congress a proposal to spend an additional $10 billion for jobs programs that would have assisted those on welfare to support themselves, a proposal rejected by Congress. The bill you signed in August, however, contains no such funding—indeed it cuts welfare spending by $55 billion over the next six years. This was not, as you put it, “an opportunity to do what is right,” but is in fact one of the most regressive pieces of legislation passed by any developed society since World War II.

We will not engage in predictions about how many millions of people of what age will be hurt by this legislation. But we want to point out that it is a further indication of the willingness of our society to exclude its weakest members—singling out not only the poor but legal aliens as well. The people who will be hurt by this legislation are mainly concentrated in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution, a group that has already suffered a catastrophic deterioration in income during the last two decades. But in the same period our national product has increased significantly and those at the top of the income distribution have grown enormously richer. The idea that this society can no longer afford to help those in need is grotesque.

We know that this punitive legislation is popular because it resonates with the radical individualism that has long been part of our culture. Many Americans are willing to blame the poor for their poverty and to overlook the dramatic economic and technological changes which have rendered a large part of our population vulnerable. No society in the advanced industrial world shares this harsh ideology with us. It is therefore all the more incumbent on you as a democratic leader and teaching president to educate and persuade when public opinion is so clearly wrong.

We are determined to work for the reform of this so-called reform, which Senator Moynihan rightly called “welfare repeal.” As he pointed out, the ending of Aid to Families with Dependent Children is the first time any section of the Social Security Act of 1935, one of the landmarks in creating a decent society in America in the twentieth century, has been repealed. This repeal together with the abdication of federal responsibility and the reliance on inadequate block grants to the states, regardless of changing economic conditions, are entirely unacceptable. Genuine welfare reform, which we support, requires an extensive educational, jobs, and child-care program to make sure people on welfare can get what most of them ardently want—jobs that will provide a living wage for themselves and their families. Such a program, combined with a renewal of the guaranteed support for children and others who cannot support themselves, is real welfare reform. We are under no illusion that this reform can succeed without spending more, rather than less, federal money. A wealthy society can use its resources in no better way than helping the most vulnerable of its members.

Our civic tradition has emphasized that we are all members of a common society. Our labor tradition has called us to solidarity with our fellow workers. Our religious tradition has told us that we are members of the same body. All this you seem to have forgotten. You have succumbed to a position which is politically popular and which resonates with the worst aspect of our individualistic culture and have thereby abandoned your role as a democratic leader. We call on you to reassert that role and serve notice that we will do everything we can to see that the grave defects in this Act are amended before it takes effect on July 1, 1997.
Professor Robert N. Bellah

The following professors in the Department of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley, writing as individuals, as I am, have asked that their names be added to this letter:
Professor Victoria Bonnell
Professor Michael Burawoy
Professor Nancy Chodorow
Professor Peter Evans
Professor Neil Fligstein
Professor Todd Gitlin
Professor Thomas Gold
Professor Arlie Hochschild
Professor Michael Hout
Professor Trond Petersen
Professor Raka Ray
Professor Rachel Schurman
Professor Ann Swidler
Professor Barrie Thorne
Professor Kim Voss
Professor Loïc J.D. Wacquant

This Issue

November 28, 1996