MORRIS: The Choices Politicians Make

Congress and the President have ended the national promise to feed our hungry and care for our needy. Politics is the process of making choices. But the choices Washington has made represents politics at its worst.Consider its actions regarding food stamps. Studies show that families receiving food stamps eat healthier. Food stamps are spent locally, strengthening local economies. Food stamps provide a stable market for American farmers. Yet only half of those eligible for food stamps receive them. You'd think Congress would expand the program. Instead it is slashing food stamps by $5 billion a year.Politicians argue that the cut is needed to balance the budget. But they continue to spend $6 billion a year to pay for meals at fancy restaurants or box seats at the ball game purchased by businesses. Billions more for lobster and caviar. Billions less for hamburgers and milk. That's the choice this Congress has made.Both parties overwhelmingly approved cutting off 650,000 legal, yes legal immigrants from social assistance. California estimates that nearly 60 percent of their legal noncitizens on AFDC are refugees.While Congress makes poor refugees suffer, it continues the odious policy, begun in 1991, of selling U.S. citizenship. Ten thousand so-called "investor visas" are available each year for purchase by those with sufficient wealth.Ciitzenship for the rich. The streets for legal but poor refugees. That's the choice this Congress has made.Over the next 6 years the federal government will slash assistance to the poor by more than $15 billion a year. Another budget balancing action? But then what in heaven's name is the Senate doing throwing $13 billion more at the Pentagon than it asked for? Giving the military more money than it wants. Offering the poor less money than it needs. That's the choice this Congress has made.Conservative politicians argue that we must end welfare not to reduce the deficit but to stop immoral behavior, namely illegitimate births. But the highest rate of pregnancies to single teen mothers occurs in those states with the lowest welfare payments. Nationwide, AFDC families are the same size as non-AFDC families. Moreover, the only study of the fertility status of women on welfare found that their birthrate is considerably lower than that of the rest of the population. And the "longer a woman remains on welfare the less likely she is to give birth". Based on the empirical evidence, one would think that people of goodwill would clamor to increase payments to poor families.The only justification for changing welfare as we know it is to give people the tools to find and keep a job. Experts of all political persuasions agree that to accomplish this long-term welfare recipients need education and training, child care, health insurance and maybe even a job guarantee. This costs money. The much praised Wisconsin strategy is to cut welfare rolls by increasing social assistance spending by 13 percent or $40 million a year.But the feds are going in the opposite direction, cutting major assistance programs by 20 percent. By the year 2002 states will have to move 50 percent of their recipients off welfare. They can do this by finding the poor jobs or by cutting them off. We all know that finding full time jobs, the only kind the feds will accept, will be difficult. Only 37 percent of all women with children under 6 are currently employed full time. Few economists believe sufficient jobs will be available even in a booming economy.What happens when the inevitable next recession hits? In the last recession the federal share of welfare spending increased 36 percent or $ 7.2 billion over four years. The number of children living in poverty increased by 35 percent. Unemployment rose from 5.3 percent to a high of 7.7 percent. The new legislation makes little provision for such conditions. That too was a choice.Now that Washington has washed its hands of the poor, will states and counties and cities pick up the check? I hope so. But I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of politicians willing to raise taxes to help the poor. Moreover, communities will worry that if they show compassion, they will become a magnet for the poor from less generous parts of the country.Congress and the President made a choice. As leaders of our nation, they made that choice for all of us. Is this who we want to be? The measure of a society is not how it treats those who eat at fancy restaurants or rich foreign investors or military contractors. It is how it treats the millions with little political or financial clout who live in quiet desperation. And by that standard the actions we have taken do not measure up.

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