The Common Good
September-October 1996

A Great National Sin

by Jim Wallis | September-October 1996

In deciding whether or not to sign the
Republican welfare bill, Bill Clinton faced the most serious
moral test of his presidency.

In deciding whether or not to sign the Republican welfare bill, Bill Clinton faced the most serious moral test of his presidency. It was, as several observers said, "a defining moment." He failed that test and more clearly than ever defined the character problem that has dogged his entire political career.

Clinton, smart but political, realized that this was a bad bill, but signed it anyway in a strategic retreat from previous principles. The results could be a disaster for poor families and children, but Bill Clinton did make it more certain that he will be re-elected. Since compassionate Christians care deeply about the former, many will care much less about the latter. Since Clinton has already offended many Christians on the issue of abortion, angering more of them on the treatment of the poor could prove significant.

Most in the religious community do favor a more decentralized, effective, and values-centered approach that would actually alleviate poverty. But the six-decade national commitment to provide a federal safety net for the poor was simply dismantled by this bill and replaced with block grants—of less federal money—to the states, without any uniform national standards or accountability. The poor of Mississippi must now trust their fate to the social conscience of their state's legislators and to Gov. Kirk Fordice—who cynically offered to buy each welfare recipient an alarm clock as his state's contribution to welfare reform.

Churches also support the transition from welfare to work, wherever that is possible. But the new system imposes a five-year lifetime limit on receiving benefits and requires most on welfare to find work within two years, without any new national commitments or funds to provide job training and job creation. Millions of mostly uneducated, untrained, and unskilled single mothers will now be forced to compete in a shrinking employment market for fewer and fewer jobs that provide a living family wage.

Finally, the new bill takes away $55 billion from mostly poor women and children in cuts to food stamps and nutrition programs and by ending almost all benefits for legal immigrants. This appalling move has absolutely nothing to do with welfare reform and will drastically increase childhood hunger. Millions of families will be directly affected.

A GREAT NATIONAL SIN has just been committed against the country's poorest children. Clinton is not the only one implicated in the transgression. The welfare bill passed by Congress and signed by the president is the consequence of forces that have been growing for some time and now threaten to engulf the nation in even deeper social crisis.

Radical welfare reform was needed but it should have been accomplished with a plan carefully designed, as much as possible, to protect the most vulnerable, especially children, from social abandonment. This bill does not. A million more children will likely be thrown into poverty, and three to four million already in poverty will be plunged into even deeper jeopardy.

The liberal sin was to block welfare reform so long that it became almost too late to transform the system positively. The welfare system has been broken for some time. What sincerely was intended as income maintenance for our poorest and most vulnerable citizens became a trap of poverty, despair, dependency, illegitimacy, and crime. While keeping people from falling even further, the system came to foster rather than ameliorate social disintegration. Instead of providing emergency relief and transitional help, the welfare system came to subsidize social pathology.

Too many Democrats ignored this growing disaster. Too many liberals cried "racism" when the system was criticized or warnings came about family and community breakdown. Too many times the Democrats had the chance to fix the system, but failed even to try. Too many liberal politicians saw sympathetic voting blocs of support in bloated bureaucracies that maintained instead of transformed poverty.

Finally, welfare system failures could no longer be ignored, and public opinion turned against not only the system, but, cruelly, against the recipients of the system. Politicians exploited the public frustration, and the clamor for change—any kind of change—became overwhelming before a responsible alternative could be developed to replace the old system.

That was the conservative sin—to fan the flames of public discontent with incendiary rhetoric that placed the principle burden of poverty on the poor themselves. If liberals have bureaucratized the poor, conservatives have demonized them.

It is right to shift from welfare to work, from federal bureaucracies to community-based programs, from dependency to self-sufficiency, from a system of permanent subsidy to one of transitional help. But it is wrong, absolutely wrong, to slash and burn old systems and safety nets with no alternatives at hand. That is exactly what the conservatives have done. They seem quite ready to experiment radically with the lives of poor people and their children in ways they would never risk with their own kids.

Perhaps the worst sin is the choice made of where to save money in the necessary attempt to balance budgets and reduce deficits. Virtually all welfare experts, such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, have pointed out in vain that welfare reform, in the short run, will cost more money, not less, to affect the transition from welfare and dependency to work and self-sufficiency. President Clinton's original welfare reform plan also recognized that a good long-term investment requires more short-term investment in education, job training, and child care.

But the Republicans decided to save money from the people with the least political power to retaliate. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have been willing to save money where it could most reasonably be cut—from still-excessive military spending, unfair corporate "welfare," and unnecessary entitlements to the affluent.

Though the Republicans hate the phrase, they have proven it true: Our government is "balancing the budget on the backs of the poor." On the day after the welfare bill passed, Republican leaders suggested that the savings from food stamp reductions could be used for a middle-class tax cut. This is immoral and outrageous.

Bill Clinton's sin was to cooperate with this when he clearly knows better. The policy wonk in him knows that this is not the way to true welfare reform, but the political animal in him knew he could be vulnerable to Republican campaign attacks after vetoing two previous bad welfare bills. If anyone had doubts before, all now know what is most important to the president. It is not the welfare of children.

One broken-hearted administration official who lost the battle on the inside said it well: "This is a sad day for the country, a sad day for poor people, and a day that will come back to haunt Bill Clinton throughout history." A biblical quotation comes to mind for the president as he prepares for his re-election: "...you may be sure that your sin will find you out" (Numbers 32:23).

The Church Is Burning

When the burning of black churches in the South reached alarming numbers, other church leaders were the first to respond. In an effort led by the National Council of Churches, in partnership with the Center for Democratic Renewal, the federal government was challenged to take a much more active and positive role in investigating the arsons, and the nation's churches were admonished to help rebuild their sister congregations in distress. In the best thing the NCC has done in years, Rev. Mac Charles Jones, Gaylord Thomas, and many others have admirably led the way in defending and supporting black churches under attack.

Next to respond were the evangelical churches. The National Association of Evangelicals, under its executive director, Don Argue, joined with the National Black Evangelical Association, Habitat for Humanity, and Promise Keepers in a major effort of rebuilding and solidarity. Even the Christian Coalition has become involved with funds for rebuilding and statements of repentance for white evangelical racism in the past. The Coalition's effort should not be denounced as merely cynical, as some have done. Rather, it should be affirmed and encouraged in the hope that racial justice becomes a serious part of the Right's agenda.

That is the issue now. The chief arsonist in the church burnings is racism. The flames are rooted in the nation's still unresolved racial past and present.

Why do the young white arsonists blame black people for their troubles? Why are black churches still so vulnerable to attack? Why is the black community still so vulnerable to being victimized by a changing global economy and then again by others who are also victimized? Does anyone doubt that the government response to the burnings would have been more swift and sure if the churches had not been mostly black?

The burning of black churches, like most tragic events, also affords us a new opportunity. It could and should become the occasion for a wake-up call to America about race. It could signal the need for a long overdue conversation—a new national conversation on race—convened in every local community across the country. Indeed, the hopeful outpouring of concern and energy in response to the church burnings, especially among young people, is a very positive sign of new possibilities.

Perhaps the religious communities that have responded could now come together, across the lines that divide them, to help catalyze and convene some next steps in racial dialogue and reconciliation. The time has come.

Incendiary Language

A new political dialogue is also necessary between those in the churches who have often found themselves on different sides of issues over the past several decades. Such a discussion could be timely with the falling away of old political categories of Left and Right, liberal and conservative, and the widespread hunger among many to find some new common ground.

This kind of dialogue takes honesty, fairness, mutual respect, and patience. But the result could be well worth the effort if it produced a greater unity in the body of Christ and yielded some new solutions to our national problems that transcend ideology.

Unfortunately, such a dialogue will not be served by a new book written by Ronald Nash and published by Zondervan titled Why The Left Is Not Right. Instead of offering a critical but honest view of "progressive" Christian leaders and organizations, Nash engages in the worst kind of diatribe against Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, myself, Sojourners, and the Call to Renewal.

Nash is presented as a scholar, but he got most of his facts wrong—so wrong that one has to ask if he did so deliberately. Nash engages in innuendo, character assassination, and outright slander, which certainly won't help the dialogue. Even more disappointing is that a credible publishing house like Zondervan would be willing to release a book of such poor quality and bad spirit.

We have prepared a four-page response to a sampling of Nash's most outrageous and irresponsible allegations. Please write to us if you would like a copy.  

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