Down on the Downtrodden

Newt Gingrich sets off a race to cut government spending for the poor, but he may be misreading America's mood

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That would eliminate the federal safety net that guarantees a base line of support to the poor even if the state they live in slashes its share of benefits. "The states will compete to show who is toughest," predicts historian Arthur Schlesinger. "It will be an invitation to economic warfare among them." Republicans would also end the entitlement status of welfare programs, meaning that when a fixed amount allocated in a state's annual budget for welfare or food stamps ran out, anyone still unprovided for would stay that way.

As a cost-cutting measure, targeting welfare makes only modest sense. Payouts to the poor are just a sliver of the federal budget. Two of the largest programs, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps, account for 2.7% of the federal budget. But when Congress shies away from tougher kinds of budget cutting, the sort that would nick the middle class and the wealthy, only the poor and the outsiders are left to take the hits.

As a political statement, cutting welfare may make more sense. For voters who moved into the Republican column in November, welfare has a significance that goes beyond the numbers. For some, of course, it's just a racial code word, even though most beneficiaries are white. For many others it's a symbol of how government programs can promote dependency and fatherless children in the name of compassion. For Americans to insist upon welfare reform doesn't represent "hostility to people who are poor because of bad luck," says Douglas Besharov, a senior policy analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "It's a deep concern about the future of America because of what looks like very problematic changes in behavior."

By moving to the right on welfare, the Republicans have also forced the White House and congressional Democrats to shift in the same direction. And the movement picked up speed last week. The White House is considering abolition of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a Great Society creation that is devoted mostly to problems of the inner cities. Chief of staff Leon Panetta is also promising that the Clinton welfare-reform plan will be revised so that the cost of job training and child care would be covered by cuts in other programs for the poor. "Any welfare proposal worth its salt," he says, "has to save money." Yet most Americans may have more patience in that regard than politicians give them credit for. In the TIME/CNN poll, 69% of those surveyed said it was important to train welfare recipients for jobs, even if that means spending more money in the short run.

The President's rightward move is tempered, however. His advisers have convinced him that he can win points by presenting himself as a centrist conciliator on welfare. In his weekend radio address, he denounced the Gingrich idea of orphanages for poor children -- "governments don't raise children," he said, "parents do" -- but stressed again his plan for a time limit on benefits. Earlier in the week he met at the White House with Governors from both parties to talk about welfare reform, then announced plans for a bipartisan meeting of Governors and mayors next month to help refine a plan. That could not only help Clinton regain a leadership role on the issue, but also provide an opportunity for him to drive a wedge between radical House Republicans and more cautious Republican Governors.

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