The Welfare Bill is Our Bosnia: An Interview with Elizabeth Holtzman

The Welfare Bill is Our Bosnia: An Interview with Elizabeth Holtzman

by Rosemary L. Bray

About Elizabeth Holtzman:
Liz Holtzman burst into public view at age 30, when she won an upset congressional primary victory against longtime Democratic-machine politician Emmanual Cellar of Brooklyn. She went on to serve three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was a member of the House Judiciary Committee that investigated Watergate. She subsequently served as District Attorney of Brooklyn from 1982 to 1989 and as controller of the City of New York from 1989 to 1992, a post she left to make a second unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate. She is currently an attorney at Herrick, Feinstein in New York City and hosts a weekly radio call-in program on New York station WBAI. Her book “Who Said It Would Be Easy?” was published last year by Arcade Publishing.

Bray: There’s a sense that welfare reform is an example of the way Democrats and other so-called progressive people folded on an issue that affects a lot of very vulnerable people. A lot of women who’ve prided themselves on their feminist credentials folded right along with everybody else.

Holtzman: I find the legislation absolutely horrifying. It is awful to think that the United States of America, the richest country in the world, could single out some of the most vulnerable people among us — the elderly, the blind and disabled legal immigrants — and take away every prop beneath them. It is horrifying to think that a country that talks so much about caring for children will substantially funds for support for disabled children in the so-called welfare-reform bill — children from impoverished families.

The welfare-reform bill was sold to the American people as a way of moving the able-bodied (primarily single mothers) from economic dependence to independence. That rationale, even if you agreed with it, does not apply to the legal immigrants who are over 65, blind or disabled. We are talking about people who cannot work. So what is the reason for destroying their safety net? The only rationale is that they are foreigners. So, I think the welfare-reform bill is, in a way, our Bosnia — our turning as a society against those among us who are different. It’s our turning against poor legal immigrants. It’s our turning against poor disabled children. It’s our turning against poor women. It’s our turning against the poor in general.

The part of the welfare-reform bill that deals with AFDC isn’t much better. Although the ideology of the bill is to move women from welfare to work and end their financial dependency, in practice there are gaping holes. First, the ideological underpinnings are suspect. This is a country that is still very ambivalent about independent women; the thought that the government really wants to take poor, dependent women and transform them into career women is not fully credible. Look at the facts: Not enough is being done to train or educate or provide the wherewithal for women to get jobs. If you’re really serious about alleviating the plight of poor women in this society, one of the things you have to do is emulate what we’ve done abroad. We know that the best way to raise the standard of living and to empower poor women in foreign countries is to educate them. But what are we really doing about seriously improving the education of poor women in this country? Recent studies have shown that expectations of performance by girls in schools across America is much lower than expectations for boys. We’re not expecting as much of girls in schools and we’re not teaching them as well.

Bray: Even when these programs are supposed to be training these women, it’s not about educating them at all. It’s really about training them for very specific low-level jobs that don’t allow them to move anywhere.

Holtzman: Well, that’s at a later stage. I’m talking about elementary school. I’m focusing on the beginning of this process as well as high school, where the expectation for girls’ educational performance is lower than for boys’. We have to change our educational system and make sure that we give girls every possible opportunity to perform well and give them the same kind of education that we’re giving boys. We have to have the same level of expectation about their performance. That means teacher training. That means gender-sensitive textbooks. That means improving our school system. That means rebuilding our schools. Not enough money to do that, they say.

Bray: They just took increased education funding out of the [federal] budget.

Holtzman: Five billion dollars was taken out of the budget to rebuild our schools, even though we are spending more than that amount on Star War’s type military programs that are unnecessary and will never work. To help poor women become self-supporting, you also have to have day care. How can women work without someone to take care of their children? Either they will leave the children home alone — with all the dangers that poses — or they will simply not abandon their children to go to work.

We also need job training, but even the job-training programs leave a lot to be desired. In New York City, one of the ridiculous things is that women on welfare can’t use their benefits to obtain a college education. They’re forced to take a dead-end job instead of putting themselves in a position to raise their standard of living for the rest of their lives. In the long run, this society would be much better off if these women could get a college degree and a better job, instead of raking leaves or something like that.

The whole welfare program was originally based on the idea of a woman’s dependency. If she couldn’t depend on her husband for support (if, say, he died or left her), then she was entitled to depend on the government. Now people want to take away the ability to depend on the government, but they’re not supplying the means by which women can become truly economically independent.

The bill is extremely harsh and inhumane. I think elderly, blind and disabled legal immigrants will die, poor disabled children will be relegated to the trash heap, and poor mothers and their children will suffer.

Bray: You believe it will have fatal consequences?

Holtzman:. There’s no question about it. Elderly legal immigrants have already been denied admission to nursing homes. Some have talked about committing suicide. Unless states pick up all the costs — and we have no idea whether they will — elderly legal immigrants are not going to be automatically entitled to any benefits. Although they couldn’t get any SSI benefits under the original welfare bill, they can under the revised proposal if they prove they are disabled. Just think of it. Poor elderly people over 65 even those who are 80 or 90 — are presumed to be able to get a job. But it is absurd to force them to try to enter the labor force. Now they will have to prove they are disabled.

But many elderly people, even those in their eighties and nineties, may be able to think and walk and talk fairly well and are not disabled. I think about my mother who is going to be 90 shortly. She still teaches in a program for retired professionals at Brooklyn College. I say to myself, Thank God she is not impoverished, because she could never prove she is disabled.

You ask me why women didn’t stand up to protest this law. I believe that it’s because of all these divisions between us, the idea is, It’s someone else who will be hurt, not me. It’s mothers on welfare, that’s not me. We’ve created in this country a tremendous gulf between the “me”s (those who are in government and those who are relatively well-off and the “them”s (the poor people). But the poor are human beings, too.

The welfare bill was the biggest assault on women’s rights in a long time in this country. And it succeeded. In a way, it’s not very different from what happened in the abortion debate. Poor women were separated out and victimized. The right to choice was preserved, but funding for poor women to obtain abortions was stopped. Who cares about poor women? That had to be the thinking. But when we begin to create these divisions and dehumanize sectors of our society, it diminishes all of us.

Bray: Have you spoken to any of the women who were part of this debate in the Senate or the House?

Holtzman: No, I haven’t. I can’t understand their rationale. I think it would be hard for them to explain it to me, but I’d love to know what was going on in their minds. It may very well be that they were afraid they wouldn’t be reelected if they opposed the welfare bill, that their political future would rest on how they voted on this. Well, I think that everybody in government needs to have a bottom line. Why get elected to Congress or the Senate if you don’t really stand for anything? And if you’re not going to stand for protecting the weakest of the weak and you only want to give opportunity to the strongest of the strong, then what are you about? The purpose of our government is to try to create an equitable situation, to create opportunity for everyone. But there are people who will never be able to take advantage of that opportunity; they are too old, or too infirm, or too disabled or too young. What are we going to say to these people? “Tough”? Are we going to put them out on the mountainside to die? I don’t think that really, in the end, this is what the American people would support. I think it’s the responsibility of leadership to explain the horrors of this bill and to try to rally public support against it. The President vetoed it twice; he should have vetoed it a third time.

Bray: But he signed it. And then gave a party on the White House lawn.

Holtzman: Right. And it’s not much better under the most recent version. What they are going to do is restore SSI payments for certain categories of people, but they’re still not going to restore food stamps. It’s pretty hard to survive on SSI without food stamps. And elderly legal immigrants will now have to prove they are disabled to get SSI. People will have an apartment or some type of shelter, but they will not be able to pay for electricity or the telephone. They won’t be able to pay for heat. They won’t be able to pay for clothing. They won’t be able to feed themselves.

As I said, this is our Bosnia. We saw in Bosnia the atrocities that people committed against each other. They looked alike — you couldn’t tell by appearance whether people were Serbs, Croats or Muslims. They had the same ethnic background, but their religions were different. So they killed each other. We’ve created our own Bosnia here, except it’s based on economics. It’s based on infirmity. It’s based on being foreign. It’s based on being poor and minority.

Bray: Do you think the 1994 elections helped to fuel this sort of ruthlessness?

Holtzman: I think the elections brought into power some very extreme right-wing ideologues. Of course, their budget-cutting ideology extended primarily to poor people and immigrants, not to the defense budget, the Star Wars program and the like. The President’s leadership on this was key, and unfortunately he caved in and people around him caved in.

Bray: The 1998 elections are coming. Is there anything in particular that progressive women should be thinking about, talking about, organizing for now?

Holtzman: I think women who really care about this [issue] ought to be contacting their congressional representatives and their senators about the need to eliminate the harshest and worst aspects of the law. Then there are other opportunities to soften the law. The regulations that are put into place to carry out the law can be written with a little humanity. Take the aid cutoff to poor disabled children; if the regulations are written leniently, fewer children will be hurt. The same holds true for elderly immigrants. Perhaps the rule could be that everyone who is over 65 is presumed disabled for the purposes of getting SSI. These are some things that can be done right now. There should be tremendous pressure applied to help children and to help the elderly immigrants who will be the first victims of the bill.

But I think women also need to be fighting on the state level, to try to get money to replace desperately needed federal funds and to increase support for programs such as day care. For welfare mothers we need day care, education programs, real job training and jobs. We also need vigorous enforcement of antidiscrimination laws.

That’s another thing people don’t want to think about. Women will be forced to take jobs, but they can be victims of harassment on these jobs. They can be victims of abuse. They can be victims of discrimination. Where is the government apparatus to protect women in these cases? These are some of the things that need to be addressed to try to make the welfare program work. Of course, I don’t think it is going to work, but I do think we can rectify some of the worst aspects of the law. We also need to try to build bridges between different economic and racial groups. We can’t cut off poor people in the nation and expect to survive. We’re all in this together.

Bray: Don’t you think people have blown off this idea?

Holtzman: Some have, but I think there are some people who are enlightened and understand that the consequences to the nation are very grave if we don’t reach out a helping hand to everybody and try to give everybody who’s got the talent and potential the opportunity to develop. We have a terrible class war going on in this country. It’s turning Karl Marx on his head. Instead of the clash he wrote about, pitting the poor and middle class against the rich, in America it’s the rich and the middle class against the poor.

Bray: Might we be in better shape if we could get more women with progressive attitudes into Congress, or will it not do any good because when they get there, the system will overtake them?

Holtzman: I don’t think the system necessarily overtakes you. I think you can stick to your beliefs. I’ve always tried to do that. I ultimately paid the price for it here in New York City, but looking back I would not change the stands I took. Sometimes the votes I cast or the positions I espoused were unpopular. But I believed they were the right ones.

I remember once voting against one of Jimmy Carter’s budgets — I was on the House Budget Committee — because it took money away from domestic programs and gave it to the military. I said, “we don’t have adequate housing. We don’t have adequate day care. We don’t have enough job-training programs.” I couldn’t justify taking money away from these programs and putting it into the military. We already had the biggest, strongest military in the world. Well, I got attacked by everybody, including major union leaders. But I said, “No, I am not going to change my mind.”

Did I pay a political price? Yes. But I don’t regret it. You can stick to your principles. The real question is, do you have principles to begin with and what are they? What principles do we want our elected officials to have? Another problem is that too many poor people don’t vote. Too many poor women don’t vote. A major effort has to be made to register the poor and encourage them to vote. If we could get the people to vote who are really going to be victimized by these laws, then laws such as the so-called welfare-reform act would never be adopted. People in office would pay attention to the victims if they exercised the political power of the vote. In the end, we live in a democracy and votes count. Actually, it is not only poor people who feel they can’t influence the system. But my answer is, You have a vote at the ballot box, just like everyone else. If every welfare mother voted, that would make a huge difference.

I remember when I was a member of Congress. Very few people in my district wrote to me. Very few people called me. They had the same attitude: What difference can my letter or call make? But the fact of the matter is that they could and did make a difference. I learned about important problems from my constituents and was able in many instances to help them. Sometimes because so few people contact their elected officials, a small but vocal minority can have a disproportionate influence. An official may say, after getting a hundred letters on a subject, “Oh, my God, everyone in my district feels this way about that subject.” That may not be true, particularly when the district has a population of 400,000.

Silence is misinterpreted; it’s taken to mean that people don’t care or aren’t interested. So that’s why it is so important to write, call or visit your elected representatives. Work through your church. Work through your synagogue. Work through your community groups. Work through other kinds of social institutions. But don’t sit silently by while the weakest and most vulnerable among us are preyed upon and victimized.

Bray: Do you ever plan to run for public office again?

Holtzman: I don’t know. The voters retired me, so I don’t know if they want me back. But in or out of office, I want to continue to fight against injustice. All of us can. I feel very, very deeply about the tragedy of this welfare law. I know how as a country we understood the value of social security. Years ago, the elderly were the poorest sector of our society. Social security changed that. We lifted elderly people out of poverty. And we’re proud of that. We’re proud that our old people aren’t looking for food in garbage cans. Was that effort only for the elderly? Don’t we want to ensure that nobody has to look through a garbage can to survive?

Social security worked. Other programs to help the poor can work. Unfortunately we’ve been subjected to a barrage of propaganda saying that people are poor, it’s their own fault. If they don’t have a job it’s their own fault. If they can’t make it, it’s their own fault. We have to stand up to the propaganda. We have to care about the weak and the needy. If we don’t, we are part of the problem. It’s in the Bible. Cain — the murderer — is the one who asks: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The rest of us know we are — and have to be.