Who Is Left to Fight for the Poor? : Feminists have stood by as Congress cuts the lifeline for 14 million women and children.

Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. He can be reached via e-mail at 76327.1675@compuserve.com.

Thank God for the Pope.

Never thought I would write that sentence, being so pro-choice and civil libertarian, but I'm getting pretty desperate. Why is it only the Catholic Church that speaks out loud and clear for the poor? On his recent trip to this country, the Pope called for "openness" to immigrants and "creative generosity for the poor." The Catholic bishops have provided the strongest opposition to Congress' wanton destruction of the federal poverty programs, which keep 14 million women and their children alive.

And it's Daniel Patrick Moynihan, another old, white Catholic male, who has stood virtually alone in Congress as members of his own party, the President included, scramble to join the Republicans in shredding the safety net. "Those involved will take this disgrace to their graves," the senator warned. Amen.

By contrast, the response of the women's movement to this most callous anti-female legislation has been fragmented and muted. Why this deafening silence when the dignity of poor women is everywhere denied, when the nurturing they provide is derided because it is supplemented by food stamps, when their capacity for parental love is dismissed merely because they receive public assistance?

Are pro-choice women no better than the hypocrites in the so-called Christian Coalition who argue endlessly about the fetus but are indifferent to the child? Almost 70% of those on welfare are children, and it is they who will now suffer less food, clothing, shelter and medical care because they made the decision to be born to the wrong parents in a mean political season.

With the Republican-controlled Congress about to put poor kids and their mothers out on the street, I thought to check with the National Organization for Women chapter in Los Angeles. The phone message on the NOW action hotline is all about their "No O.J. project." Not a word about the vicious congressional attack on poor women. An attack abetted at a crucial moment by the two female senators from California, whom NOW members helped to put in office.

Both Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein voted for the Senate bill that ends the federal government's 60-year-old commitment to provide the bare necessities of life to poor women and their children. They voted for a bill that the White House's own internal analysis conservatively estimates would put another 1.1 million children into poverty and force millions more to go without.

We only know of that White House study because Elizabeth Shogren of The Times got hold of the document that the Administration was keeping from Congress and the public. Why keep it secret? Because President Clinton has already signaled that he intends to back the Senate's atrocious "welfare reform" legislation rather than veto it. If Clinton signs legislation that impoverishes millions of women, will feminists still back him because he is pro-choice?

Armed with this new information on the disastrous consequences of the Senate bill, I hastened to call Feinstein's office last Friday, but Susan Kennedy, her press spokesperson, was nonplussed. She reaffirmed, after consultation with her boss, that Feinstein stands by her vote to end the historic federal welfare obligation because "she believes that the welfare system has created a chronic dependency."

Dependency? This from a senator who never had to work a day in her life until she decided to get on the public payroll. She's dependent all right, on rich parents and husbands who have bankrolled her political career. That unfortunately is an option not available to most welfare mothers. Now this wealthy lady has the temerity to warn that women on welfare have grown dependent on the dole. Blaming the poor for poverty is like holding rape victims responsible for the crime.

How can it be that the two women Californians so proudly elected to the Senate did not heed Moynihan's warning? "If in 10 years' time," he said, "we find children sleeping on grates, picked up in the morning frozen, and ask, 'Why are they here, scavenging, awful to themselves, awful to one another,' . . . it will have begun on the House floor this spring and the Senate chamber this autumn."

If it's going down like that, I'll stick with the Pope, who believes that "each and every child is a gift from God." Better a consistent pro-life position that affirms the dignity of all human beings than a pro-choice stance that only respects the lives of those children born to parents of means. I hope that's not the case, and that Congress will soon hear, loud and clear, from the many pro-choice people, male and female, who are also pro-life.

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