In House vote on welfare limit, a right turn on a left issue

Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.

After an hour of polite, but heartfelt debate, the overwhelmingly Democratic and largely liberal House of Representative of overwhelmingly Democratic and largely liberal Vermont declined Thursday to allow poor young mothers to stay on welfare for more than 60 months of their lives.

By a vote of 36-98, the House rejected an amendment to the omnibus appropriations bill proposed by Rep. John Moran of Wardsboro which would have exempted “able-to-work” recipients of “Reach Up” grants from a new 60-month lifetime limit if they “are in compliance with … Reach Up program regulations.”

The recipients, almost all of them young, unmarried mothers with small children would “receive comprehensive family development plan reviews every 90 days to identify and remove employment barriers.”

The amendment was the last effort of social service advocacy groups and their legislative allies to make further adjustments to the strict 60-month limit on Reach Up – as Vermont calls its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, as welfare is now known – proposed by Gov. Peter Shumlin in January.

A few exceptions had already been made to Shumlin’s plan by the House Human Services Committee, and a few more by an informal group of lawmakers earlier in the week. But the result was still too strict for the social service advocates, who are convinced, as Moran said in introducing his amendment, that “Reach Up is one of the … most effective anti-poverty programs in the state.”

But the amendment could not even attract a majority of the Democrats in the House, raising one obvious question and a few that are less obvious, and perhaps more complicated.

The obvious question is: Just how liberal are these liberal Vermont Democrats? To some liberals, generosity toward the poor – and especially the young and female poor – is the litmus test of their creed. If even most Vermont Democrats are going to limit benefits to young, poor, women, where is a liberal to turn?

In the debate, some of those Vermont Democrats, including some with reliably liberal voting records, argued that the time limits would end up being more beneficial to the young women than would staying on welfare indefinitely. The 60-month limit idea, one lawmaker said, “came from the Reach Up caseworkers themselves,” the people who know the recipients well and are working to help them.

In other words, there is a legitimate disagreement among liberals as to what is the best anti-poverty policy, bringing up a more complicated question: Is the “liberal” position in this disagreement perhaps to the right of the more “conservative” position?

To begin with, there is the matter of political strategy. Keeping able-bodied people on the dole indefinitely may not offend liberals. But it enrages most working people.

This is under a limited definition of “working.” It applies only to those who go to the same place at the same time and do the same thing five or six days a week. If that thing requires standing on one’s feet most of the day or lifting heavy objects, that’s called hard work.

By this definition, doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, political activists, and – needless to say – journalists, do not “work.” They may put in a lot of time and effort, but they don’t do the same thing standing on their feet all day.

Those who do – and who probably earn less money than the professionals – get furious at the idea that their tax money supports able-bodied people who stay on the relief rolls. Nor does it do any good to tell them that perhaps only a penny of every hundred dollars of their tax money is spent on these programs, far less than what they pay for just one of those F-35 airplanes or the tax preferences for big oil companies.

They probably know that. They still don’t like it. That’s why lower-middle-income workers, once the heart of the New Deal coalition, now reliably vote Republican. Liberals would be wise to bear this in mind.

Then there is the question of just what is left and what is right in the welfare discussion. Nelson Rockefeller once noted that the real economic elite (he should know; he was one) had no trouble with generous welfare benefits. It was cheaper than suppressing riots, he said, and it sustained a sub-working class whose members could be hired when business boomed and sent back to the dole later.

At the same time, there was once (there really isn’t any more) an influential political faction that was to the left of liberalism. Not the Communists, though a few of these left-of-liberals (and a goodly number of ultra-conservatives) had once flirted with that farce. But people like Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers, civil rights advocate Bayard Rustin, folk-singer Pete Seeger, novelist Nelson Algren, and others.

It isn’t that they would have voted against Moran’s amendment. They would probably have supported it. But reluctantly, because the idea of a healthy person staying on welfare was distasteful to them.

That’s because they were not liberals, but leftists. To them, the key division among people was not race or gender, but class. The class to which they were committed was the working class, and in order to be in the working class, one must … work. Their preference would have been for these women to get jobs, preferably in the private sector, where they would join the union or help organize one.

In those days, of course, it was much less common for single young women to have babies. And the left-of-liberals preferred it that way. Not that they disapproved of sex. Folk-singing legend Woody Guthrie, to take one prominent example, rarely let the complication of marriage (including his own) present an insuperable barrier to seducing a pretty young woman. But they didn’t propagate. Or if they did, they supported their children. They did not approve of men who fathered children and failed to support them.

Summoning them from the dead can’t be done. But it’s not unreasonable to think that they would have opposed even trying to move today’s Reach Up recipients into jobs, most of them very bad ones.

Okay, they might have said, if necessary keep them on the dole until their kids get a little older, but convince them and other unmarried young women not have babies.

Not an easy undertaking. In New York right now, some liberals, led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg (he qualifies, in this context) are trying to shame single women into not having babies by a series of subway and bus advertisements illustrating the hardships of being brought up as the child of a welfare mother.

Not surprisingly, this has split the liberal community, with some liberals assailing Bloomberg for “blaming the victim,” others arguing that this is a worthwhile effort that will benefit the poor.

It may not be worthwhile. It may not be good policy. It may not be liberal. It is not un-left.

Jon Margolis


  1. Dave Bellini :

    “…there is a legitimate disagreement among liberals as to what is the best anti-poverty policy…”

    That’s it, in a nutshell.

    Also, whatever the final outcome of any written statute on social policy; there’s the local interpretation (subject to change) of it, exceptions, exemptions, waivers, special circumstances, court rulings and efforts to, or not to, enforce it. Whatever it ends up, my guess is it will NOT be clear and unambiguous.

    • Renée Carpenter :

      “The 60-month limit idea, one lawmaker said, “came from the Reach Up caseworkers themselves,” the people who know the recipients well and are working to help them….”

      One lawmaker, unidentified, doesn’t qualify as “legitimate disagreement.”

      I find this essay troubling in its license to presume so many things, including the intentions and beliefs of some long-dead “left-of liberals” … and Pete Seeger–who is alive enough to be asked whether or not he might accept an amendment “reluctantly, because the idea of a healthy person staying on welfare was distasteful to them.”

      You–as so many others do–presume many false concepts, including about how single parents became single and unsupported, reliant on a shredded social safety net to feed, clothe, house, and provide for their children. I would venture to say that most people, when served up the facts, would prefer to prevent hunger, homelessness, and the destitution of families the current legislation as proposed is likely to create.

      Peter Shumlin is a smart politician. He knows that the “welfare issue” so easily polarizes us, even in what we would like to believe is a compassionate Vermont community, so that the REAL ISSUE–whether Vermont will fairly tax the most wealthy citizens to assure that all Vermonters will have their basic needs met–will be obscured while we dicker about what is NOT a “legitimate disagreement.” Anyone who has found themselves needing these social supports and those who understand statistical studies of said policies are in full agreement: Time limits on social supports for our most vulnerable children and families is unconscionable.

  2. John Walters :

    “But they didn’t propagate. Or if they did, they supported their children. They did not approve of men who fathered children and failed to support them.”

    You’d best be careful when making blanket statements like that. The men of the Old Left were a remarkably misogynistic lot. No more so than their contemporaries, of course; but the midcentury labor movement and the socialists and the Beats had no awareness whatsoever of the need to liberate women. I suspect that their attitudes toward sex and responsibility were no more advanced.

  3. While the arguments against caps were indeed heartfelt, they were factual and based on research, not rhetoric.

  4. Barbara Morrow :

    Where are the dads in this equation? Why do we dial down on the mothers and leave the dads out of the legislation?

    I’m not totally opposed to time limits, but the idea that “able-bodiedness” as the determinate is such gross oversimplification. There has to be work available; there has to be accessible child care available; there has to be training.

    And yes, there is a disagreement among liberals about what an effective anti-poverty poverty policy should be….and how to lift people up from poverty in general.

  5. Walter Carpenter :

    “Nelson Rockefeller once noted that the real economic elite (he should know; he was one) had no trouble with generous welfare benefits. It was cheaper than suppressing riots, he said, and it sustained a sub-working class whose members could be hired when business boomed and sent back to the dole later.”

    And as Howard Zinn brought out, though I cannot remember his exact words right now, the “economic elite,” also had no trouble fobbing the welfare benefits off onto the shoulders of the middle/working class to turn them against each other and against the poor rather than who is really doing them in — the economic elite.

    • Lee Russ :

      Absolutely correct. Never underestimate the role of the “divide and stay in power” theory of ruling.

  6. Terrence Sehr :

    If the rules to qualify for benefits are well-defined and based on actual need, then adding a time-limit on benefits will only serve to hurt people who by definition actually need those benefits.

    On the other hand, if the rules are poorly defined, then the legislation should have focused on fixing the rules.

    The author’s theme of speculating on what a strawman “real” leftist might have thought seems pointless.

  7. Amelia Silver :

    I look forward, with a sense if doom, to seeing who voted which way. A cap on Reach Up is arbitrary and all evidence, from the numerous agencies that serve poor families in Vermont, and from neighboring states, proves overwhelmingly that the cap will be destructive to Vermont families immediately. Write to your senators now, folks.

  8. Lester French :

    These changes may serve to drive some of the people who moved to Vermont for the free ride out of the state. With increasingly high taxes hurting business and job prospects the potential for people on welfare to find work is being diminished.

  9. Mike Barone :

    How many generations of undereducated persons are we going to pass through our education system before we realize the third and fourth generation of welfare recipients is the norm? When will our social policies reinforce/re-invent the “Family” as the first step to a structurally sound society.
    Policy seemingly is not reenforcing family structure. Social policy aimed at protecting the children, is not reinforcing strong parenting. And few expectation are being made of parents less they be a better parent.God forbid! School system directed by federal government intervention, forced schools to dropped the ball in substitution as “parents” the village was working till our teachers were directed not to “hug a child” who likly needed the hug. Our schools became the last resort of loving for so many of our poorly parented children. They took that and more.

    The consequences of becoming a welfare child/parent can not be discussed publicly less we offend someone.The stigma of being a welfare recipient isn’t stigmatized as a poor choice but promulgated as ok. The system doesn’t discuss openly, poor choice behavior, or reenforce good choices sufficiently enough. There is no guilt for laziness or a willing ness to live on the government. And sadly Through circumstances beyond ones control real need is common.

    “Circumstances beyond their control is the operative” and is where longer term welfare and intervention is our social responsibility. We as compassionate people stand tall in our civic responsibilities, but we should not be suckers.

    If our government must fidget is social policy it appears the current social engineered plan has failed miserably. We might see fit, through our school systems, to teach what a dollar will afford, how good diet choices will keep generally good health, why the car, electric, heat, food, cell, housing, insurance , entertainment bills will dictate how much effort they individually and personally will need to activly expend to earn enough income and how much income in order to maintain their chosen life style. And that if you choose to have children both parents are legally responsible fling or not.

    Our children, before they become dependent on anyone, need to be taught how finding a soul mate will increase their potential for success financially, how to keep that relationship whole and then be taught how necessary a strong work ethic is to keep family whole.

    My family used a system where as the kids were taught work ethic, money didn’t grow on trees, decided to take jobs, very much forced on them by denying them so much financial support that they had to take a job. We subsidized their effort with financial incentives.The more they earned, the better they did in school, the more personal effort and more responsibility they took upon themselves on behalf of the family, the more we helped financially. Not a lot, but just enough to fill the last quarter of the tank of gas or the last two or three car insurance payments. We seldom pre announced our level of support or incentive which kept them endeavoring to their end. And even had to stop matching savings as they became to good at it to afford!

    So in essence we subsidized their insufficient incomes with bonuses in a effort to help them understand what good hard effort was able to provide. We reminding them, that asking for a raise or another interview with their bosses was expected by their employers, who might recognized a good workers efforts. We advised to not stop seeking a raise, the lack of a raise after six month left them no other choice but to seek more appreciative employers, they were advised to do this as well.

    There would be a lot less fatherless children and single moms if our parent were better at parenting and our government didn’t diminish the parental control or religious guidance away from parents or schools or made it so easy to dissolve a marriage or made excuses for poor choices or better yet, did see that our education system wasn’t picking up where parents were failing or fearful of going because of government intervention.

    Interesting note, rumor has it that Vermont hospitals are birthing a record number of addicted children, birthed by addicted children, who may well end up on the system for generations to come. Single mothers with free housing health care phones etc. Is the policy, they can have as many children addicted to drugs as the choose and the rest of society will covet them, or should it be the child is adopted and the mother cleaned up, re- educated and prevented from birthing dependency into our society?

    Will our legislators ever get it right? Is political correctness going to dirty the waters for yet another generation. Will this permissive social policy make the remaining hard working person of any profession throw up his hands and join the line of despair or vote with his feet or just stop working as hard. Vermont is not the only beautiful place in this great nation, but is is becoming increasingly unaffordable to more earners than ever and for many perhaps will have no choice. Does this matter?

    The neediest are the people we are disrespecting. Our missguides social policies, emplant dispair. Once well meaning government policy appears to endear this failing and our politicians seem unwilling to address it till now.

    Our expansion of our poor class is guided more to a life of despair and is active policy. The people that should be important and “ripe for saving” are thoes willing to help society help them. Becomming self sufficient respecting and proud contributing members of society needs to be the norm of society. Untill they are guided to be self sufficient, confident, self respecting reendoctrinated productive participants in our great society they will never respect them selves our other working people who endevor to help them. In respecting themselves they will appreciate others efforts , we will continue to disrespect them if we move further down this path.

    They will remain our poorest but not our neediest. The neediest are being greatly ignored because of users of the system which appears to have few qualifying guidelines allowing a usury personality to take and a willing policy to give with little enforcable expectation of changing.

    Lets subsidize effort and discourage dependence. If you work hard you get substantially more tax provided services from the other working people, but if you insist on and expect sustenance by caveat, your share of societies wealth will be greatly diminished and shouldn’t be expected and are not deserving of tax payer support.

    New guidelines need to be established.

    Again, I say again, the truly neediest of our society are our truest of the needy, who are being short changed by the willing dependent, self indulging willing non-workers amongst us and we tax payers are encouraging this behavior by not fireings the legislative team in charge. I believe our legislature is beginning to see the pain current social policy has caused. I applaud them.

    Back to work with us and we as a society will help. Continue down this road and the far right won’t be far enough. And the remaining willing worker who just makes it by, will continue to surrender to un told wealth our government will provide till it falles down around us and we all plea for services we never needed or deserved because our social policy made it possible to do nothing for someone else’s effort.

    Just saying,

  10. brenda field :

    Fantastic job! Thanks for putting those thoughts together in print.
    It’s timely for our elected officials to attempt to address known failings of this system and I welcome this attempt. It may and most likely will change as it evolves but it is a much needed effort.

  11. Lee Russ :

    And where, in all this debate and all this citation of historical views and sociological motivations is the one essential question that should be at the forefront of this debate: WHERE ARE THE JOBS THESE PEOPLE ARE SUPPOSED TO GET?



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