Round Two - November 3, 2000
I hate it when journalists quote taxi drivers and other potentially tippable people, but I can't resist reporting that, on Wednesday morning, while I was mulling over the Round One offerings, my airport shuttle-van driver volunteered that he was still straining to detect any difference between the candidates. Another witless, uninformed contributor to "mob rule"? Not exactly: he had the radio tuned to NPR's Morning Edition and was listening to yet another exhaustive report on the campaigns. Which is to say that the differences so painstakingly limned by Dionne are somehow failing to leap off the page.
It's not the differences, or lack of them, between Bush and Gore, that I want to address today, but the assertion of my old friend Harold Meyerson that, in failing to vote for Gore, we risk losing the "incremental increase[s] in social provision" that the Democrats, by their nature, are committed to. Now, we might argue about the definition of "increment": I would say Medicaid and Medicare were "increments" in that they were once seen as steps on the way to universal health coverage. As for prescription-drug coverage for seniors, this is not an "increment"; it's what they call in the pharmaceutical industry a "molecular modification." More to the point though, "increments" are not supposed to be negative in value, and one of the proudest achievements of the Clinton Administration, according to Gore, was the eradication of the federal government's sixty-one-year-old commitment to the support of families headed by single mothers.
I'm talking about welfare reform, and I find it odd that no one here has brought it up yet. For me, this was the deal-breaker, the end of my old yellow-dog ways. Yes, the Democrats have remained pro-choice, and this has been enough to guarantee the lifelong, see-no-evil-hear-no-evil loyalty of what we now know as "Beltway feminists." But, as political scientist Gwendolyn Mink puts it, welfare reform stands as "the most aggressive invasion of women's rights in this century." This is not to say that welfare was not in dire need of reform, real reform: it subjected recipients to humiliating treatment and doled out only sub-poverty-level benefits. One thing it offered, though, was an escape hatch in times of crisis: For 60 (and in some surveys, 80) percent of women who applied for AFDC, the precipitating event was domestic violence. But go to the TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families, the "reformed" version of welfare) office now, and you'll be sent right back out the door to find a job. To paraphrase the laissez-faire credo Meyerson warns will prevail if Gore is defeated: You're on your own, sis.
True, the welfare rolls have shrunk by half since the legislation was passed in 1996, and there is some evidence that of those who have left welfare, between half and two-thirds find jobs. But their earnings average only about $7 an hour, and many of these families have lost food stamps and Medicaid too, despite their continuing eligibility. (Some states, in a reckless orgy of devolution, have programmed their computers to throw people off these programs at the same time they're tossed off welfare -- a practice which has not been vigorously challenged by Clinton's Department of Health and Human Services.) Hence the largely unreported epidemic of maxed-out food pantries and homeless shelters -- with local charities blaming the rising demand on welfare reform.
For "reform" at its most fiendish, consider Wisconsin, where a recent independent audit finds Maximus, the private for-profit company that's paid to manage TANF, ripping off the program to pay for things like company social events, advertising, and logo-ed fanny packs. Meanwhile, Milwaukee has experienced a sudden 37 percent increase in African-American infant mortality -- apparently because of inadequate nutrition and declining use of prenatal care by the post-welfare poor.
Now, if Gore were to pass over the subject of welfare reform with the appropriate stammerings and mortified blushes, maybe I wouldn't be feeling so bitter. But he actually takes credit for it, stating in his acceptance speech, "In the Senate and as Vice President, I fought for welfare reform." And according to you, Harold, writing in the L.A. Weekly, this is no Internet-style exaggeration: Gore indeed played a leading role in getting Clinton to sign the obnoxiously punitive welfare-reform bill of 1996. At least Nader recognizes that $7 an hour isn't a living wage, and that corporate profits persistently trump the life chances of our sacrosanct "working families."
Meyerson ends with a dismissal of Green parties everywhere, which "nowhere on earth have won more than roughly 10 percent of the vote in a national election." So let me end with my own international question: Where on earth has a Third Way, New Democrat-type party brought about an expanded welfare state? I'd love to learn of an exception, but as far as I know, Gore-types worldwide have cheerfully applied themselves to doing the dirty work for the right.
Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- November 6, 2000
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