The best-kept secret in American politics is that we are all welfare recipients. Most of us don't know it or are unwilling to admit it.
Laid-off executives grab their unemployment insurance. Well-off senior citizens refuse to give up their Social Security checks. Homeowners deduct mortgage interest, college students depend on government loans and businesses and farmers rely on federal incentives and subsidies. The government even bails out failing banks and corporations. Just recently, Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich noted that $200 billion in "corporate welfare," mostly in the form of tax breaks and subsidies, constitutes one of the most expensive forms of federal assistance.
So why has the nation declared war on the welfare mother and her children? And who will defend them?
Having "won" the Cold War, the United States now faces a competitive battle in the global marketplace. Many Americans, anxious and insecure over their uncertain economic prospects, wonder whom to blame for their children's bleak future. This is the politician's job: to find plausible scapegoats. Welfare recipients and immigrants, like Communists of the 1950s, perfectly fill the bill.
The welfare recipient is a particularly good scapegoat. Through endless repetition, the political right has saturated the culture with sinister stereotypes of the single mother on welfare: She's poor, deceptive and slovenly. She neglects her children and spends taxpayers' hard-earned wages on drugs or booze. Oh and by the way, the color of her skin is dark.
Never mind that many studies have repeatedly debunked these stereotypes. Much of what the public thinks it knows about welfare mothers is simply wrong. Consider the following facts that never seem to penetrate the welfare debate:
* The typical welfare mother in 1993 received an average monthly payment of $367, or $4,400 a year. Even with food stamps, no state provides benefits adequate to bring families above the poverty line.
* The typical welfare family consists of a mother and two children, slightly less than the size of the average American family.
* Welfare to single mothers constitutes only 1% of the entire federal budget, 3% if food stamps are included.
* African Americans represent only 38% of the AFDC population, but they are constantly portrayed as the main recipients of welfare.
* More than 70% of women on welfare are on the rolls for less than two years.
* Many welfare mothers work outside the home when they can. When they stay at home to care for their children, they are condemned as lazy. When affluent married homemakers do the same, they are praised for their maternal devotion.
* Welfare has helped many single mothers gain an education and enter the workforce. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma) and Rosemary L. Brey, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, are two of the many women whose lives once were "saved" by receiving federal assistance.
The idea of abolishing most forms of welfare has become this season's panacea for curing America's social and economic ills. In our current Orwellian Newtspeak, "welfare reform" has become a euphemism for welfare cuts; "unwed mother" means any mom without a male breadwinner, whether she is separated, divorced, abused, abandoned or widowed, and "illegitimate child" is the label for any kid not claimed by a male breadwinner.
In early January, Newt Gingrich and gang will introduce the so-called Personal Responsibility Act. In pushing thousands of poor off the welfare rolls, it is actually an act of profound social irresponsibility.
This is the time for all humanitarian organizations to place welfare defense at the top of their political agendas. The Catholic bishops, who have opposed these cuts, should join forces with civil-rights and human-rights groups to combat these punitive proposals. The women's movement should emphasize its commitment to poor women by holding speak-outs at which the real-life stories of welfare mothers can be heard. Oprah and Donahue should broadcast programs that give welfare moms a human face.
Everyone agrees that our current system is unworkable and inadequate. Real welfare reform would require training, health care, child care and real jobs for poor women. Our first principle must be: No workfare without child care.
As we enjoy a holiday season that celebrates mercy and compassion, let us remember that we all are welfare recipients and that many of us are just one or two paychecks removed from homelessness.
Real welfare reform must be directed at ending poverty, not at eliminating welfare.