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

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

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