10

The Nation.

August 26/September2,1996

JILL NELSOlV

Apocalypse Now
n Thursday, August 1, the elevated platform on
125th Street and Broadway is crowded with people waiting for the subway. It is finally a sunny
day. It should be cool to sit on the platform and
read the paper while waiting for the train. But the
&e of The New York Emes reads, “Clinton to
Sign Welfare Bill That Ends U.S. Aid Guarantee and
Gives States Broad Power,” and instead of sun and
busy people all I can see is the devastation that is
sure to come.
This is the story the media did not convey. The
superficial and dishonest coverage of the provisions and likely
impact of the welfare bill-with a few exceptions-is yet another example of the media’s failure to inform the citizenry before it is too late.
With the announcementthat he will sign the legislation, Bill
Clinton has revealed himself as the ultimate political whore, a
man who stands for nothing and lies down for anything. Listening to his pollsters and not his policy-makers, he did what was
politically expedient. In so doing, he became the driving force
behind the government-sponsoreddestruction of community. It
may take a village to raise a child, but it takes only one immoral
President to impoverish millions of them.
For the government to shift the responsibility, but not the
money, for welfare programs to the states and expect states to
administer them adequately or fairly or, let’s face it, intelligently,
is absurd. Historically, the power of the federal government is
necessary when the states will not do what is right. None of us
should forget what the cry for “states’ righis” meant for black
Americans living in the states of the old Confederacy before the
Southern civil rights revolution of the fifties and sixties.
You can see a good chunk of Harlem from the el platform
on 125th and Broadway, a few blocks from where I live. It is a
community populated by the poor, the working poor, the middle
class. It is a community in which more than 250,000 people,
citizens and legal immigrants, receive some sort of government
subsidy, from Supplemental Security Income to Aid to Families
with Dependent Children, to food stamps and Medicaid. It is a
community in a delicate balance, and it will be devastatedby the
impact of the welfare bill.
It is notjust Harlem that will be cruelly affected but communities all over this nation. Those on the edge will either die or be
shoved into the abyss of permanent economic exclusion. Those
who thought they were moving away from the edge will be
pushed onto it. The impact will be immediate on those most
vulnerable: women, children, the elderly-but it will not stop
there. Denied S.S.I. benefits, kicked off welfare after two years
and told to find a nonexistentjob, denied food stamps-essentially told,You are expendable-few will roll over and die, disappear,
just go away, as the House, Senate and President would prefer. Instead, they will do what any of us would do: survive by any means
necessary. If that means stealing food from the supermarket, or
hitting someone over the head on their way home from work for

a few dollars, or breaking and entering, so be it.
I am terrified by what will likely happen. Here,
we are already on the edge; there is no shoulder by
the side of the road. Many of my neighbors are elderly legal immigrants, long out of the work force
and sometimes pensionless, subsisting on S.S.I.
Many are families with children, who receive food
stamps or Medicaid because, even working a 111time job, they can’t put quite enough food on the
table or purchase health care. Some of the young
women I can see coming outside with their babies
as soon as it gets warm receive A.F.D.C. Then there are all the
other people who get no direct benefits from social welfare programs (although many, like myself, once did), but coexist peacefully with those who do-beneficiaries of the fragile state of
grace that suggests we are our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers.
That is what community is fundamentally about.
The welfare bill will destroy that state of grace. In its place
will come massive and deadly poverty, sicknessand all manner of
violence. People will die, businesses will close, infant mortality
will soar, everyone who can will move. Working- and middieclass communities all over America will become scary, violent
wastelands created by a governmentthat decided it has no obligation to its neediest citizens. In such a landscape, each of us becomes either predator or prey. We’ll all be fair game to one
another, the ones who used to be our neighbors, back when we
had a co&unity.
The bill does not signal simply the “end of welfare as we
know it” but the end of any idealistic notions of an America we
thought could be. In stripping away society’s supports for the
weakest-whether children born in poverty, or young mothers
in need of a leg up, or legal immigrants who came here in search
of a better life, or unemployed workers in a time of record corporate profits and rampant downsizing-the governmentannounces
the death of a dream of America. Forget you heard the words
engraved on the Statue of Liberty, written in the Constitution or
the Bill of Rights. All that is simply obsolete lip service. The
only sound now is the death knell of any government-supported
vision of an equitable, egalitarian America.
Sitting on the el platform reading the paper, I want to shriek,
grab my neighbors who wait alongside me, thrust the newspaper
in their faces, scream, “Have you read this? Do you believe this?
We have to organize and do something!” Instead, I lean against
the railing and look out over Harlem, prematurely nostalgic for
the good old days of today, when things are bad enough, but
inconsequential in the face of what is to come. When the train
finally pulls into the station, the screech of wheel against track
could just as well be a national howl of pain as this odious bill
squeezes the life out of us.
Jill Nelson, who will be writiiig the next three “Media Matters”
columns, is the author of Volunteer Slavery (VikingPenguin). Her new
book, Straight, No Chaser, will be published next year by Putnamk