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.