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Let Them Eat Birthday Cake

Clinton's welfare reform dismays the President's favorite poverty scholar

By Jack E. White

(TIME, September 2) -- Did anyone else find it unnerving that only days before Bill Clinton signed a welfare-reform law that will plunge more than a million children into official poverty, he marked his 50th birthday with glitzy celebrations in New York City that added $10 million to his party's bulging campaign war chest? Shades of Marie Antoinette, Newt Gingrich and Jesse Helms.

As Democrats convene in Chicago within a few blocks of some of the nation's most downtrodden neighborhoods, Clinton and his Administration reek of tin-plated noblesse oblige. When he signed the new law last week, the President boasted that it would help the poor rediscover the value of "work and family and independence." But the new system he brags so piously about provides few realistic ways for the poor to uplift themselves beyond insisting that they tug at their bootstraps. Clinton argues that those who still believe that the Federal Government has a duty to try to eradicate poverty should support him because Bob Dole would be so much worse. But as Jesse Jackson has repeatedly and unavailingly pointed out, it makes little sense to elect a Democrat if he governs like a conservative Republican.

Just how one-sided and punitive the welfare-reform debate has become is underscored in sociologist William Julius Wilson's new book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. It is the most thoroughgoing examination ever of the damage caused by long-term joblessness to people in the ghetto.

Unlike the President and the Republican lawmakers who concocted the shameful version of reform that became law last week, Wilson sees both sides of the welfare dilemma. He has no quarrel with the need to do away with welfare as we knew it by moving recipients to jobs. Indeed, he considers it vital to arrest the long slide of the ghetto poor into dependence and pathology. But Wilson asks a simple question for which Clinton and the Republicans have so far provided only the vaguest of answers: Where are these jobs going to come from? He raised the question again in a memorandum that he faxed to Clinton last week, but has so far received no reply.

Moments after Clinton signed the new law, the normally dispassionate Wilson told me he was "disappointed and very upset." Though Clinton has stated that Wilson's earlier work "made me see race and poverty and the problems of the inner city in a different light," it seems clear that he didn't absorb all the lessons. "Under the original proposal that Clinton introduced when he entered office," Wilson explains, "welfare recipients would be required to undergo training and job placement during a two-year maintenance period, then accept jobs in the private sector. But if private-sector jobs weren't available, public-sector jobs would have to be created. Unfortunately these provisions were not in the bill that he signed today."

The consequence, Wilson predicts, is that "most of the welfare mothers who reach the five-year time limit will be left to sink or swim, and for those in the inner city the situation will be catastrophic. The supply of low-skilled workers compared to the number of jobs that are available is so large that it would take 10 to 15 continuous years of economic expansion to absorb them. We've never had a period of sustained economic growth that has lasted that long. This means that if we want to prevent a large number of mothers and children who are now on welfare from becoming homeless once they reach the time limit we're going to have to create public-service jobs."

Wilson cites the finding of a recent study of fast-food job seekers in Harlem by his Harvard University colleague Katherine Newman: there were 14 applicants for every individual who was hired. Among the applicants who were not hired, three-quarters had not found work a year later.

"What she concluded, and my research in Chicago supports this," Wilson says, "is that the number of low-skilled job applicants pounding the pavement for work far exceeds the number of jobs to be found. In fact, in the ghetto areas of the nation's 100 largest cities, there were 10 adults without a job for every 6 people who had one." Because of factors beyond their control, even well-qualified applicants from inner-city neighborhoods were unable to find work. Some employers told Wilson's research assistants that an address in a ghetto neighborhood was considered sufficient reason not to hire an applicant. The new welfare law does nothing to change that reality.

Despite his dismay at the course the President has taken so far, Wilson says he is "optimistic" that Clinton will address the job issue if he is re-elected. "He wants to be remembered as a President who alleviated human suffering and improved the life chances of the poor," says Wilson. But any further effort to create jobs will depend not only on whether Clinton wins a second term but also on whether the Democrats regain control of Congress from Gingrich and his henchmen. By then the President may have had time to read and digest all the lessons of Wilson's profound and disturbing new book.


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