By Jason DeParle
The New York Times Magazine
December 8, 1996
LONG AGO, A CLASS OF HARVARD GRADUATE students joined their distinguished
professor in a study of public attitudes toward welfare. That is, they opened
their notebooks and switched on a tape of "Oprah."
got nasty fast.
A white guy in polyester
sprang from the studio audience to condemn his sister-in-law, the "welfare
lout" who "bilked" taxpayers for "new teeth." A white
woman with beehive hair griped about food-stamp shoppers in "an Eldorado
Cadillac." A black single mother with a low-paying job screamed at a black
single mother with no job at all. "You have to show your children something
For 60 long minutes, the halls
echoed with working-class complaint.
have all the babies?!"
"Don't sit on your
As the insults mounted, the
welfare mothers who had been invited on the show looked ever more angry and confused.
One appealed her case to Oprah, complaining that the griping audience wanted her
children to "to look nasty and have dirty faces." But the doyenne of
daytime TV, herself a working woman, did not seem sympathetic. She faced the camera,
locked eyes with America and asked the country this question: "Should you
be going to work while someone on welfare's sitting at home with their feet up?"
students scribbled, giggled, gasped and frowned, but none seemed more captivated
than the man in the back row, a 43-year-old economist slouched low in his seat
and nervously bobbing his knee. David T. Ellwood, the Malcolm Wiener Professor
of Public Policy and the academic dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government,
was studying this particular "Oprah" broadcast for the 10th time. "Each
time it's more painful," he whispered, jotting notes in the dark. "Why
so much anger? What's going on here?"'
no one has pondered those questions with more boldness, creativity and good intentions
than Ellwood himself. And perhaps no one feels quite as unsettled at the nation's
latest answers. To an uncanny degree, the story of the recent welfare revolution
is a story of David Ellwood's ideas. Or, as he views it, a corruption of his ideas.
More specifically, a corruption of his idea that cash assistance to poor women
and their children should come with time limits. Now that those limits are the
law of the land, Ellwood says, "I do lie awake at nights, worried about what's
going to happen to our children."
tale of Ellwood's journey has all the trappings of a Washington thriller -- tense
meetings in the Oval Office and a triumphant ride on Air Force One -- yet the
arc would be familiar to the ancient Greeks. The professor had an idea. But the
idea gained a life of its own, to the profound dismay of the professor.
a young academic, Ellwood wrote "Poor Support" (Basic Books, 1988),
an instant anti-poverty classic that called for time limits on welfare, but only
as part of a much broader plan to shore up the lives of the poor. Ellwood envisioned
universal health care, expanded training programs, wage supplements, guaranteed
child support and last-resort Government jobs for those who could not find them.
He pictured a system that "ensures that everyone who exercises reasonable
responsibility can make it without welfare."
a while, the "Ellwood plan" shimmered only as a distant nirvana for
policy wonks. But by the 1992 Presidential campaign, a wonk none other than Bill
Clinton was stealing Ellwood's lines, promising to "make work pay" and
to defend the "people who play by the rules." Soon he stole Ellwood
too, bringing him to Washington to help fulfill Clinton's pledge to "end
welfare as we know it."
But by the time
Ellwood resigned from the Government last year, his proposal was in tatters, and
Washington was converting the welfare debate into its own version of the "Oprah"
show. Taking Clinton at his end-welfare word, the new Republican Congress pushed
through unprecedented cuts in anti-poverty spending, and invited states to weave
-- or to shred -- whatever safety nets they chose. Instead of time limits followed
by a work program, Congress created time limits followed by . . . nothing. As
Clinton went along, Ellwood, back in Cambridge, was fruitlessly urging him to
Like Ulysses on the isle of Corfu,
Ellwood now finds himself marooned, on the foreign shores of the "Personal
Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act of 1996," and he
is picking his way through its 400 pages, searching for hope in the wilderness.
But Ellwood also can't help looking back. When talking about the shipwreck that
landed him here, he sounds more numb than angry -- as though he's studying his
own emotions from the same perplexed distance that he studies the "Oprah"
show. "You do go over in your head all the things you might have done differently,"
he says. "You can't help thinking, 'Oh my God, all that work, and this!"
He hesitates for half a second, then finishes the thought. "And I do have
some frustration and some anger and some guilt -- all those things -- all tied
up about it."
WALKING INTO A ROXBURY
WELFARE OFFICE ONE DAY LAST month, Ellwood had his own chance to play Oprah. Local
officials had assembled a half-dozen recipients to chat about the system, and
they were gathered around a basement conference table, eyeing him warily. He was
not quite sure where to start.
just say there are lots of people in Boston and Washington, trying to make changes,
who've never been to a welfare office, and so forth," he said. "You
meet with a governor and a President or senator, and they don't know what they're
talking about. As far as I'm concerned, you guys are the real experts."
room was silent. Ellwood tried again. "Here I am, a guy at Harvard,"
he said . "Not exactly connected to the system. And yet I'm involved in making
decisions. I feel like I gotta spend time, talking and so forth."
was as awkward as the start of a junior-high-school dance, but it worked. Ten
minutes later, the women couldn't stop interrupting one another. "Once you
get on, you tend to get a little lazy," a mother of four who has collected
a check for five years said. A woman in a training program agreed. "People
think they can sit and have a football team full of kids, and the state's gonna
take care of them," she said. Few subjects are as close to Ellwood's heart
as the need for child support enforcement, and he beamed as he discovered an ally.
"Momma's home with the babies, while Daddio's out at Wonderland," she
said. Aim for his wallet, and "jack-his-pants-up!"
he pledged thank you notes to all involved, Ellwood couldn't have been more pleased.
The morning-long session confirmed his three central beliefs: 1) the current welfare
system is a disaster; 2) the new law will make it worse; 3) his original plan
wasn't just a better solution, but one the recipients themselves would support.
"They all said that time limits of some sort make sense," he said ,
the professorial authority returning to his voice as heads back to Cambridge.
"I emphasize: of some sort. Once you asked, 'What if they just cut people
off after two years?' they all said that'd be a disaster."
was a subjective read of a highly unscientific sample -- but plausible. Most of
the women did confess to feeling trapped by a system that gives something for
nothing, and they at least professed to find time limits reasonable. ("If
you can't get it together in two to three years, there's something wrong with
you," one had said.) At the same time, the details of their misfortune were
complicated, and not necessarily set right by a kick in the pants. Two of the
five women had asthmatic children, whose care sometimes made it difficult to work.
While one had a mother who can baby-sit, the others called reliable child care
as elusive as a reliable man.
in Ellwood's view, is as clear as always -- a mutual responsibility pact in which
poor women agree to work, and taxpayers pledge the health care, child care (and,
if necessary, the jobs) they need. As it happens, there's nothing in the new welfare
law to prevent states from concocting their own version of the Ellwood plan. But
there's also nothing to keep them from offering a 30-day time limit and a bus
ticket out of town. "States can do the right thing in this bill," he
says. "But the incentives are to do the wrong thing, to just cut people off
The law is really two separate
initiatives, joined at the hip. The first is a set of Federal budget cuts, designed
to save $55 billion over the next six years. Of that, $24 billion will come from
programs for legal immigrants, primarily Medicaid, food stamps and Supplemental
Security Income. Another $23 billion will come from other food stamp recipients,
including families with children. When the cuts are fully implemented, the food
stamp program will have shrunk by nearly 25 percent.
second part of the bill covers what people traditionally consider "welfare":
payments to single mothers with children. Here the changes are more significant
still, but for altogether different reasons. In the short run, the Federal money
actually grows. But the old program (Aid to Families with Dependent Children)
has been abolished, and the new one (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) shifts
autonomy almost entirely to the states, with long-range incentives to spend ever
States can immediately cut their own
spending by 20 percent. They can shift 30 percent of the Federal money to child
care programs for other constituents. They must limit any family's cumulative,
lifelong benefits to less than five years (though 20 percent can be exempted for
hardships). And while states are supposed to put their recipients to work by the
year 2002, the fine print tells another story. States can meet this standard either
by placing families in a work program (an expensive option) or finding ways to
shear them from the rolls (a cheap one). "Not only do we allow states to
cut people off -- we encourage them," Ellwood says.
the benefit cuts and the time limits, the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research
group in Washington, has predicted that as many as 2.6 million additional Americans
will fall into poverty. The key word, of course, is "predicts." No one
knows for sure what will happen, and not every advocate is predicting disaster.
"I think there are more opportunities to do good things with this bill than
Davis realizes," says Toby Herr of Project Match, a training program for
long-term welfare recipients in a Chicago Housing project. Even Ellwood thinks
that a few states will design better systems. And where they don't, some of the
poor may prove more resourceful than their advocates think. "There's a lot
of people out there that don't like cleaning nursing homes," one of the Roxbury
women had said. "Let me tell you, if it's two years and you get nothing,
they'll start liking that nursing home."
as Ellwood notes, the long-range logic suggests even deeper subsequent cuts. As
an "entitlement," welfare spending used to rise with caseloads; as a
"block grant" it will have to compete with other, more popular programs
like TK [education grants, etc.]. "Who's going to stand up and say, 'Cut
Medicare instead?' " Ellwood says. By the time he reaches Cambridge, his
morning bounce has faded to a mid-afternoon mournfulness. "The welfare system
is in a death spiral."
SAY I'M A RAGS-TO-RICHES SORT OF STORY," ELLWOOD BEGAN one afternoon, his
feet up on a coffee table in a fourth-floor office that looks out at the resplendent
Cambridge hills. "I grew up in an upper-middle-class family where everyone
believed in a form of public service. Interestingly, it wasn't a family where
everyone was volunteering all the time, though we did some volunteer work. It
was a family where everyone was focused on systemic change."
characterization underscores the struggle Ellwood faces, as a big-thinking poverty
fighter from a privileged Minneapolis suburb. The notable thing about his childhood
home wasn't just its affluence, but its splendid, benevolent isolation. The Ellwoods
had their own wooded acre on Christmas Lake, a half-hour from downtown but a world
away from its concerns. "I now prefer skiing in 'deep bottomless powder,'
" he wrote to his grandparents when he was 13. "This weekend I debated
on the question of 'compulsory service for all citizens.' " Even when he
ventured overseas as a high-school exchange student, Ellwood wound up in Sweden.
It's possible to read his subsequent career as an effort -- noble or naive, incisive
or quixotic -- to understand the murky realms of race, class and human need from
which his own upbringing protected him. "It was a great life, an idyllic
life, one I can't reproduce for my kids," he says.
truly set the Ellwoods apart wasn't just the neighborhood, but an ethic of public
service that dates back generations. His father's father was a physician who frequently
treated the poor, and his mother's father was a preacher. But the ancestor with
the truly metaphorical occupation is his great-grandfather, Willard Ellwood, a
church architect. In sacred form or secular, the Ellwoods have been sketching
blueprints for public virtue for the past four generations. The oldest of three
children and the only son, David was saddled from the start with the mixed blessings
of his early intellect. Though he can now appear confident bordering on brash
(his detractors often say "arrogant"), he spent his childhood, in his
mother's words, as "a bit of a loner." His sisters, Cynthia and Deborah,
smart achievers themselves, prospered with public educations. But by the sixth
grade, David was eager to attend the elite Blake School, an all-male academy.
He more or less kept to himself, and excelled in math and science. "I definitely
wasn't very good with girls," he sighs. "I guess I was kind of a nerd."
one with a formidable father, obsessed with changing the world. David Ellwood
was entering his adolescence just as Paul Ellwood was firming his conviction that
he held the cure to the nation's health care system, with something he dubbed
the "health maintenance organization." The dinner hour became a lecture
series on his conversations with the Nixon Administration, which was giving his
cause a hearing. "He would talk about it constantly, just constantly,"
Ellwood says. Among the characters in the story was someone at the Department
of Health, Education and Welfare called "the assistant secretary for planning
and evaluation." Seeing the power the crucial gatekeeping post held over
his father, Ellwood aspired to hold it one day. (He succeeded at the age of 39.)
he entered Harvard in 1971, Ellwood was still a chemistry buff who had stunk up
his parents' home with mad-scientist experiments. But as college chemistry grew
increasingly theoretical, he found a more useful tool for decoding the complex
world. "What I like about economics is that it starts with the basic incentives
facing individuals -- then what's neat is it aggregates those choices, up to the
systemic level," he says. He emerged in 1975 as a newly minted summa graduate,
less socially awkward than when he entered, but scarcely a portrait of sophistication.
had a reputation as a computer whiz, and a consulting firm with a Medicaid contract
invited him to apply for a job. He showed up for his interview in a plain white
T-shirt. "He seemed incredibly bright, but a little naive about what this
world involved," recalls his supervisor, Marilyn Rymer. Shortly after their
work ended, she discovered his interests had expanded beyond computer models;
at one point, Ellwood asked her to estimate the probability that "something
would work out" between them. As a 29-year-old professional woman looking
at a doughy 21-year-old computer buff, Rymer, 51, thought the probability close
to zero. But to let him down easily, she said 10 percent. They married four years
later. They have two daughters, Malinda, 17, and Andrea 12, and Ellwood is still
known, in affectionate moments, as "Mr. 10 Percent."
bond with Marilyn gave Ellwood not just his family but also a guide to anti-poverty
policy. She had begun her career in a Georgia welfare office, and a subsequent
consulting project took the two of them to welfare outposts across the south.
Ellwood enrolled at Harvard as a graduate student in economics, and wrote his
doctoral dissertation about jobless black teen-agers. He began a teaching job
at the Kennedy School in the fall of 1980, just shy of his 27th birthday.
the time, the welfare debate was deadlocked. Conservatives complained about long-term
dependency, while liberals insisted that most recipients left the rolls in two
years. In a groundbreaking study with Mary Jo Bane, a Kennedy School colleague,
Ellwood returned to his computer and proved them both right. Most of the people
who went on the rolls did leave in two years. But a substantial minority stayed.
That meant the majority on at any given time were in the midst of a long-term
spell, one that averaged eight years. "Welfare had two faces," he says.
"dynamics study" had all the hallmarks of Ellwood's subsequent work:
it was empirically grounded, nuanced, accessible and relevant. And it allowed
readers of varying ideologies to read into it what they would. Though it was never
published in an academic journal, the study went on to a samizdat life that changed
the welfare debate of the 1980's. Though liberals still emphasized the considerable
turnover, it became increasingly difficult, in light of Ellwood's data, to dismiss
dependency as a figment of conservative bias.
however, Ellwood remained a liberal, defending the system in public talks. As
he did, he says, "I got creamed," by social workers and recipients themselves.
"I realized I had to do some basic rethinking." The result is Ellwood's
landmark text, "Poor Support," whose double-edged title delivers his
guilty verdict on the welfare system. While it's an impressive book, its appeal
resides less in policy esoterica than in its measured common sense. "We want
to help people who are not able to help themselves, but then we worry that people
will not bother to help themselves," he writes. His solution isn't to reform
welfare -- and inevitably bog down in that tradeoff -- but to alleviate the need
for it by shoring up all low-wage workers and single parents.
suggested wage supplements, health insurance, job training, child care, better
child support collection and public-service jobs -- policies he hoped would raise
incomes without removing the incentive to work. With those "poor supports"
in place, he suggested, the country should replace an open-ended welfare system
with time limits of two or three years. The idea of time limits was not a new
one. But with the endorsement of a prominent, center-left Harvard academic it
quickly gained new credibility. "Some of this is just Minnesota, O.K.?"
he says. "Minnesotans basically believe you oughta help your neighbor help
himself or herself. I just think that's as American as apple pie."
Ellwood himself was making an appearance on "Oprah." Knowing that his
time on the air would be minimal, he shortened his message to bumper-sticker length.
"If you work, you shouldn't be poor," he said. (That is, raise the minimum
wage and tax credits.) And "one parent shouldn't be expected to do the work
of two." (Get tough with child support collection.) In truth, many people
had a surer knowledge of the welfare program's intricacies. But Ellwood could
articulate a plausible solution in crisp, appealing terms. He had a winning rap.
the 1992 campaign, it wasn't just the broad outline of Ellwood's plan that was
coming out of Clinton's mouth, but the aphorisms too. Yet the two had met only
in passing, years earlier, and they never spoke during the campaign. Ellwood was
thrilled, and a bit alarmed -- especially by the most potent Clinton sound bite
of all, the pledge "to end welfare as we know it." Ellwood feared this
was so vague it could be taken to mean anything, including just literally "end
it." (In a recent speech he called the Clinton phrase "vacuous and incendiary.")
liberals had harbored similar anxieties about misinterpretations of Ellwood's
work. They welcomed his calls for increased spending, but worried that conservatives
would hijack the time limits while forgetting everything else. Now Ellwood was
fretting, too. "I don't think these are issues that are best discussed under
the klieg lights and sound bites of a Presidential campaign," he told me
at the klieg lights and sound bites of a Presidential campaign," he told
me at the time. A month after the election, he was introduced at a meeting as
the godfather of time-limited welfare. "I deny paternity," he said.
as he was leaving his office a few weeks later, a call arrived from Washington.
It was Donna E. Shalala, the incoming Secretary of Health and Human Services.
She had spoken to the President, and he had approved her suggestion that Ellwood
join the Administration to help craft the welfare plan. The title: assistant secretary
for planning and evaluation. Reminded a few months later of his previous doubts,
Ellwood's new enthusiasms were on full display. "Now I work for the President,"
BUT HE WAS farther from Minnesota
than he knew. Shortly after arriving in Washington, Ellwood was escorted into
the inner office of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, where he was greeted with
a sour prediction. "I'll look forward to reading your book about why it reform
failed this time," Moynihan said, referring to welfare reform. Clinton's
promise -- two years of training, followed by a work program -- would cost billions.
And in Moynihan's view, the public was looking to spend less on welfare, not more.
"There simply is no money," Moynihan said. "None! So what are you
going to do?"
Ellwood remained optimistic.
From his perspective, the Federal budget seemed vast, and surely with Clinton's
commitment such details could be worked out. In the spring of 1993, Clinton named
Ellwood as one of three leaders of the task force that would draft his bill. (The
other two were Bruce Reed, a White House aide, and Mary Jo Bane, who had also
become an assistant secretary of health and human services.) But the task force
soon grew unwieldy, with three dozen members from across the Government. And suffering
from high-level neglect, the task force took a year to finish its work.
gloomy forecast proved prescient. The search for the $10 billion to $15 billion
Ellwood needed for training, jobs and child care bogged him down in months of
bureaucratic wrangling. The enemies of the plan repeatedly leaked his lists of
possible tax hikes and spending cuts, leaving him embarrassed and preoccupied
with a secrecy he could not preserve. And his relationships quickly frayed on
Capitol Hill, where Ellwood's professorial air was often interpreted as arrogance.
Unlike some Washington officials, who use their egos as weapons, Ellwood seemed
disturbed to discover his condescending side, and he sought colleagues' advice
about setting things right.
Ellwood also found
himself fighting an ideological battle with Reed, whom he once jokingly called
"a right-wing hack." Though their relationship was friendly and respectful,
Reed was, in fact, considerably to Ellwood's right. When he joined the task force,
Ellwood was pushing hard for a system of "child support assurance,"
in which the Government would make the payments itself if it failed to collect
from absent fathers. The idea was a centerpiece of "Poor Support," and
in Ellwood's mind far more important than time limits. But Reed nipped the notion
in the bud. He called it welfare by another name, and stressed that Clinton had
never endorsed it.
As the process progressed,
Ellwood discovered that Reed had a much different vision of time limits in mind.
To Ellwood, the idea meant that after two years, recipients would have to work;
but the Government would insure that the work existed, and that the checks would
continue to flow. To Reed, "ending welfare" ultimately meant just that:
ending welfare, not continuing it through some make-work scheme. At some point,
he argued, eligibility for the work program itself should end. The details sound
trivial, but they cut to the philosophical core: Is there a safety net or not?
The two ultimately appealed to Clinton himself, who in a final Oval Office meeting
essentially split the difference.
was long and harrowing and sometimes embarrassingly public, but in the end it
produced a plan. There was less money for child care than he had hoped, and guaranteed
child support survived only as a small experiment. But Ellwood still glows when
he recalls the final product. "I'm incredibly proud about the welfare bill,"
he says. "We all liked it. The Cabinet liked it. And I think it's where the
public was at." Clinton flew to Kansas City to unveil the plan in June 1994,
and Ellwood went along to brief him aboard Air Force One. He split off in Missouri
for an appearance on "McNeil-Lehrer." "And I fly home alone in
a middle seat on an absolutely packed airplane -- and I have to say, I just loved
it," he says. "There was some Calvinist side of me, feeling like, "O.K.,
now come back down to earth. This is only stage 1.' "
it was. The political landscape had been transformed in the two and a half years
since Clinton had first pledged to "end welfare" -- transformed, in
no small part, by the pledge itself. Clinton's bold oratory, followed by years
of delay, had created expectations that his plan could not fulfill. Never mind
that it was far tougher than anything a President had ever proposed, including
Ronald Reagan. The Republicans were drafting their Contract With America, which
went beyond work programs to endorse absolute bans on cash aid to young mothers.
House Democrats feared that an election-year welfare debate would be a disaster
for them.. Eager to defer consideration of the bill, they needed a target, and
they found one in Ellwood, the Harvard man with the plan. In four days of hearings
in July 1994, Representative Robert Matsui of California leapt on Ellwood's every
word. Some people might even question Ellwood's motives, he said, and assume he
was "pushing welfare this year to enhance his resume." The message was
clear: the bill wasn't moving.
It died a few
months later when the Republicans captured Congress and started laying their own
plans to "end welfare." The Democrats could no longer indulge their
internecine disputes, and Ellwood and Matsui, along with many others, united to
play months of defense. But Clinton himself showed little stomach for the fight.
At the nadir of his political fortunes, he was wary of struggles that might further
tag him as liberal. And as a former governor, he had more trust than his aides
in unfettered state choice. His moment having passed, Ellwood resigned in July
1995. A year later, six decades of welfare policy was swept away, while Ellwood,
vacationing on his father's Wyoming ranch, penned a lonely op-ed to urge a Presidential
What, he now asks, went wrong?
a more complicated question than it may seem, and inevitably, some fingers already
point Ellwood's way. By polishing the notion of time limits with his liberal academic
gloss, they say, Ellwood was asking for it. "I remember saying to him at
the time that in the real political world, the time limits would survive, and
the rest would be brushed aside," wrote Frances Fox Piven, a Columbia University
sociologist, in a recent issue of The American Prospect, the liberal journal.
In a subsequent interview Piven went on to say that Ellwood was "in a wonderland"
to think that policy experts could keep control of a national welfare debate.
"This is a pretty nasty and ferocious politics," she said. "Welfare
has always been a scapegoat."
for his part, is willing to say, "I was incredibly naive about a number of
things," but whether he means it is another question. He says the public's
disenchantment with welfare was so severe that some upheaval was bound to occur.
While he sees mistakes, they are mostly at the level of strategy and tactics.
He faults himself for not building better relationships with legislators and reporters.
And he faults the senior-most White House officials for not lending the effort
more support. Had the Clinton bill been introduced a year earlier, Ellwood says
he believes it would have passed. "The values and the direction made sense
at many different levels," he said. "It really was the proverbial hand
up, not a hand out."
To believe, as Ellwood
does, that he got agonizingly close is to believe several things. One is that
the country is willing to spend more to make welfare reform work. Another is that
the public will tolerate the inefficiencies of a Government jobs program. A third
is that the country can debate welfare without unleashing the demons of the "Oprah"
show, especially the unspoken racial animosity that inevitably comes into play.
It's an uphill struggle to believe those things, but not, in the end, impossible.
Though the taxpaying public feels angry at the welfare poor, it feels guilty about
them as well. It wants to spend less; it wants to help more. Its attitude is volatile
and contradictory and hard to predict.
susceptible to leadership, especially in the hands of a politician as skillful
as Clinton. Sure, Ellwood had a streak of naivete and a weakness for optimistic
forecasts. But he was hired to be an assistant secretary for planning and evaluation,
not a political consultant. Clinton's words radicalized the debate, not Ellwood's,
and the responsibility for the subsequent politics resided with the President
himself. The Ellwood plan always had a chameleon quality, and in Clinton it found
a chameleonlike champion, whose true coloration remained impossible to fix. Did
he abandon his original vision in favor of election-year votes? Or does he really
believe the bill he signed will do right by the poorest Americans?
is a complicated man, with some wonderful good qualities and some very troubling
ones," Ellwood says with a sigh. "I really believe there are some core
convictions there, but I also believe, obviously, those are more flexible than
I wish they were. I think that Bill Clinton honestly believes he did the right
thing in signing the welfare bill. What I don't know is: 'If Bill Clinton were
not President of the United States running for office, would he still feel that
IT WAS COLD IN Cambridge on the
night Clinton captured 379 electoral votes and a coveted second term. While Clinton
was in a Little Rock holding room, contemplating his place in history, Ellwood
was walking across the Harvard campus, with his hands jammed in his pocket.
has spent much time recently trying to conceive viable "fixes" to the
bill. The problem is he can't think of too many, especially when he applies a
political reality test. "This bill is not going to get fixed," he says.
Ellwood's spirits brighten a bit when he turns away from the law and back toward
the country that produced it. He says he believes that taxpayers have a legitimate
gripe: they want the poor to work.
as Ellwood well knows, that begs the bigger question: how to make work work? How
to move four million low-skilled women, many of them borderline disabled, into
a labor market where entry-level wages have been declining for two decades? How
to lift their households out of poverty?
more Ellwood mulls those questions, the more he returns to the blueprint in "Poor
Support": tax credits, child care, child support, medical care -- in exchange
for a commitment to work. For all his disappointments, some of his plans did make
it. The new welfare law seeks to improve child support collection, and many of
its provisions were borrowed straight from Ellwood's bill. ("One parent shouldn't
be expected to do the work of two.") And for all the spending cuts, the country
has significantly bolstered the wages of workers; it has raised the minimum wage
and expanded a tax credit program that now offers payments of up to $3,500 a year.
("If you work, you shouldn't be poor.")
those contrasting legacies in mind, there's a way to start interpreting Ellwood's
tumultuous ride through the "Oprah" studios of life. Haltingly, imperfectly,
the public may still be willing to help those who help themselves. To support
programs for workers, that is. But the country does not seem as willing as he
had hoped to make sure that jobs exist. And it seems especially unwilling to fret
over the fortunes of those who do not or cannot work. Even if they have children.
Even, for that matter, if they wind up on the streets. And that's just not what
an optimistic reformer from the Minneapolis suburbs counted on a decade ago, when
he bet on poor support.
Copyright © 1996 by The New York Times
Co. Reprinted with permission.