04/19/2012 11:30 am ET Updated Jun 19, 2012

It's Time to Reexamine the Welfare Reform Law of 1996

The New York Times of April 7 had a magnificent, several-pages-long article on the effect the change in welfare programs throughout the nation has had on its beneficiaries, mostly women with children, beginning with 2007, 11 years after the law was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

The major change in welfare policy was to end cash benefits to recipients after they reached a five-year limit of welfare coverage. Welfare recipients continued to be eligible for food stamps which effectively became the cash provided to the welfare recipient who sold the food stamps. The Times article, which was superbly written and researched by Jason DeParle, pointed out the following:

Asked how they survived without cash aid, virtually all of the women interviewed here said they had sold food stamps, getting 50 cents for every dollar of groceries they let others buy with their benefit cards. Many turned to food banks and churches. Nationally, roughly a quarter have subsidized housing, with rents as low as $50 a month.

Several women said the loss of aid had left them more dependent on troubled boyfriends. One woman said she sold her child's Social Security number so a relative could collect a tax credit worth $3,000.

'I tried to sell blood, but they told me I was anemic,' she said.

Several women acknowledged that they had resorted to shoplifting, including one who took orders for brand-name clothes and sold them for half-price. Asked how she got cash, one woman said flatly, 'We rob wetbacks' -- illegal immigrants, who tend to carry cash and avoid the police. At least nine times, she said, she has flirted with men and led them toward her home, where accomplices robbed them.

'I felt bad afterwards,' she said. But she added, 'There were times when we didn't have nothing to eat.'

When the bill was signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, we were in a period of economic growth and jobs were available to many of those single mothers. But the demand we made on these poverty-stricken women beginning in 2007 occurred shortly before the onset of the greatest recession in our economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Throwing those women and children off of welfare by virtue of the five-year time limit put them into contention for jobs when millions of skilled and semi-skilled Americans in the middle class were being fired and unemployment climbed to over 9 percent. How could we expect these poverty-stricken women to successfully compete for the few jobs then available? Of course, some did, but most did not.

I believe I am not and was not as Mayor of New York City a bleeding heart -- I knew then and now that you cannot spend money that the city, state or federal government does not have for social programs that are needed without flirting with bankruptcy. But there is always the question of municipal priorities on what do you spend the monies government does have. The poor have always seemed to be last in line when decency and fairness should make them a priority.

It is surely disturbing for all of us to learn:

While data on the very poor is limited and subject to challenge, recent studies have found that as many as one in every four low-income single mothers is jobless and without cash aid -- roughly four million women and children. Many of the mothers have problems like addiction or depression, which can make assisting them politically unpopular, and they have received little attention in a downturn that has produced an outpouring of concern for the middle class.

Of this number, DeParle reports: "researchers at the Urban Institute found that one in four low-income single mothers nationwide -- about 1.5 million -- are jobless and without cash aid."

Currently, we are concerned with helping -- and we are not doing a very good job at doing so -- the unemployed middle class and those who are seeing their homes foreclosed. The Congress, like the American public, seems unconcerned about the poor who are sinking into deep poverty which the Census Bureau defines "as living on less than half of the amount needed to escape poverty (for a family of three, that means living on less than $9,000 a year). About 10 percent of households headed by women report incomes that low..."

During the Nixon years when Daniel Patrick Moynihan before becoming the senator from New York was a presidential adviser, Nixon proposed H.R. 1 which would have nationalized welfare with all states required to make the same base cash payment of $6,500, with the feds paying all increases required over and above what states were paying for the existing welfare program for women with dependent children. The left wing of the Democratic Party in Congress refused to support it, complaining it was too little. Moderates, like myself, did support it, and we lost. The left lost later when the new time-limited program was put into effect in 1996, and the poor women and children have since suffered enormously. Obviously, we should not go back to the earlier program, which encouraged fraud, abuse and too heavy a permanent reliance on government welfare. But simply applying an arbitrary time limit, irrespective of the needs of individual families -- mothers and their children -- doesn't work. That is why it is time once again to look at the program.

Making the point of how we deal differently with the wealthy and protect them was brought home by another article in The Times dated April 11 which discusses subsidies to wealthy farmers. The article by Ron Nixon reads in part: "The federal government could save about $1 billion a year by reducing the subsidies it pays to large farmers to cover much of the cost of their crop insurance, according to a report by Congressional auditors."

Where is America's humanity? How can we see women and children degraded this way? We cannot continue to avert our gaze and fail to respond to their needs. Responsible people shocked by the fraud and outrages that marred the old system of welfare went overboard -- me among them -- in seeking to eliminate the abuses. It is time we examine the subject again and seek a just solution.

Mr. President, you must speak for the poor. No one else seems willing, or effective.