Youth Programs Knifed in Welfare Reform Brawl

Bill Howard
May 1, 1996

To David Liederman the most important battle yet to be decided in the great war over the FY '96 federal budget – perhaps extending into FY '97 and on up to election day — is welfare reform. The critical issue for children and youth is whether the Republican-run Congress can bulldoze President Clinton into handing federal cash assistance for the poor over to the states in block grants, or he keeps it as a guaranteed entitlement.

“Aid to Families with Dependent Children is the key one for child welfare," declares Liederman, head of the Child Welfare League of America "Lose it and the child welfare system will be swamped as support for poor families is withdrawn and they fall apart. All those kids will wind up in foster care."

So far, Clinton has agreed — and then refused to cut a deal. But having promised last year to "end welfare as we know it," child advocates fear he may yet waffle on a reform agreement with Republicans that undermines the social safety net some more.

Balance the budget, a rallying cry of Sen. Robert Dole's presidential campaign, hasn't exactly inflamed GOP voters in the early state primaries, and this reduces the pressure on Clinton to strike a compromise. Clinton also is being given reasons in his own bid for re-election to stand firm.

Leery of Trusting States

Leaders of civil rights groups, his political allies, have joined the fray, asserting that states cannot be trusted to care for poor people. They are adamantly opposed to a compromise welfare reform plan recently advanced by the National Governors Association (NGA), which has 31 Republican members, contending African-American children would be "disproportionately harmed" by the proposal.

"Many African-Americans remember that 'states' rights' were code words for the states' denial of basic civil rights," says Wade Henderson, director of the Washington. D.C., office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "We are concerned that this history not return in the context of welfare reform."

Replies NGA executive director Raymond C. Scheppach: "I just don't agree with the criticism that you can't trust the states to cover low income individuals." Under Medicaid, he said "many states" already cover benefits and populations beyond those required by federal law and all states "always have had enormous discretion" to set welfare payment amounts.

The National Black Caucus of Slate Legislators, the National Council of Negro Women and the Congress of National Black Churches have signed on with the NAACP in the opposition camp. They charge the governors' plan — groundwork for a possible Clinton compromise — would allow states to cut their own welfare spending by 25 percent without penalty, cut $25 billion from food stamps by turning the program into a block grant and eliminate cash assistance for hundreds of thousands of children with disabilities.

Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, has also castigated the governors as a "special interest group" and charged their welfare reform proposal was "in many key areas harsher than the Senate-passed bill, which would have added more than a million children to the ranks of the poor."

Programs Nailed by 25 Percent

Clinton last August endorsed the Senate bill, then withdrew support after the Children's Defense Fund's Miriam Wright Edelman, a long-time associate of First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, focused on the one million figure in an effective Washington Post open letter to the president.

Slamming shut open-ended federal entitlements wherever they can is at the core of the Republican strategy to chop back the deficit and balance the budget by 2002 — while giving well-off voters a tax break.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his band of freshmen conservatives gleefully tried to club Clinton into a deal on entitlements by twice denying him temporary spending authority to keep the government operating, except on GOP terms. Clinton refused and Republicans took the blame for two partial shutdowns of the government — among them the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor Education and Justice.

No FY ’96 appropriations bills have been approved for these agencies, and they have been operating under Continuing Resolutions (CRs) since the new fiscal year started last October 1 — but with a catch.

Republicans have allowed only short-term CRs. The last one, on January 26, which extends to March 15, imposed steep cuts of 25 percent and more on many children and youth programs. They have killed several others, including summer jobs for youth, and refused to fund some initiatives proposed by Clinton in his budget.

Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, estimates the cuts so far have pared a total of $22 billion from FY '96 spending. He has raised the specter of hiking that figure to $30 billion by continuing the CRs as they stand through the end of the fiscal year in September, if Clinton still refuses to cave in on the entitlements issue.

The Gridlock Factor

Liederman, among other advocates, hopes Clinton hangs tough. "Gridlock at this point is our ally. I believe it," he told YOUTH TODAY. However, he conceded the 25 percent cutbacks hurt. "States and the federal departments are going nuts because they don't know what they've got and can't plan on a yearly basis. I don't think it is going to get straightened out, either."

Says a long-time staffer in HHS' Children's Bureau, who asked not to be identified: "We're fairly paralyzed not knowing when it will all get ironed out. But the government keeps functioning. People here don’t seem to be acting much different. They're all getting paid even though there was a 25 percent cut in salary and expense money. The administration is making the payroll by not hiring anyone, not allowing travel and not buying new equipment. We may be able to last out the fiscal year this way though there's talk of imposing one-day-a-week furloughs to scrape by."'

Children and youth advocates appear to have won one major comeback victory —junking of a proposed Child Protection Block Grant that would have repealed the federal child abuse and family preservation and support programs but left foster care maintenance an open-ended entitlement. The block grant was in a compromise welfare reform bill passed by Congress earlier this year and vetoed by Clinton.

Tom Birch of the National Coalition on Child Abuse warns, however, "As long as welfare reform is still on the table, Republicans can still revive the block grant." A semblance of the proposal remains in the governors’ plan; it would keep foster care maintenance as an entitlement but allow states to use some of the money for child abuse and neglect prevention.

Civil rights groups object, pointing out child welfare agencies in 22 states are now under court supervision because they have failed to adequately care for abused and neglected youngsters.

Ira M. Schwartz, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work and head of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the Carter Administration, predicts advocates "will lose the battle — child welfare will become part of the block grant program and there's no reason why the juvenile justice program shouldn't be, too." He adds:

"It’s time that all of this money be put into the hands of state officials with limited strings attached so they can develop their priorities how to use these resources — and tackle their juvenile crime problems, including prevention, in their states" (see article on page 26).

A Momentous Election

The derailed FY '96 budget is in such a shambles it may never get back on track. Five of nine appropriations bills have not been approved, and they are being overtaken by the FY '97 spending bills Clinton is scheduled to hand Congress on March 17.

"It's possible with the '96 fiscal year already half over, Congress will just go with a CR and concentrate on FY '97," says one HHS informant. "They want a short session so they can get out on the reelection campaign trail by August."

This speaks to the primary dilemma confronting children and youth advocates: How much longer can they count on President Clinton — and his veto power — to hold off the drastic social policy changes demanded by congressional Republicans?

Says CWLA's David Liederman: "The big roll of the dice is November." That's when Democrats have a shot at recapturing control of the House, if not the Senate Liederman sees the recent election of a Democrat to replace Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), who was forced to resign for making unwanted sexual advances to women, as a hopeful omen.

"The Oregon vote was terrific. What made the difference was women." CWLA is pushing voter registration wherever it can to boost voter turnout for Democratic candidates.

Should Republicans sweep Congress again, however — and if Clinton stumbles out of the White House — the ball game would be over nationally. The battle for youth programs will shift to the state houses.

Howard, Bill. "Youth Programs Knifed in Welfare Reform Brawl."Youth Today, March/April 1996, p. 20-21.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.