When President Clinton hit the hustings in Kansas City on June 14 to announce his new welfare plan, one congressional Democrat, California's Lynn C. Woolsey, was watching with a gimlet eye. Clinton proposed the most comprehensive reform since the 1960s, including new work requirements and a tough new two-years-and-you're-out provision to get more recipients off the rolls faster. Woolsey's special interest: She's Congress' only former welfare mom.
A representative once on the dole? Woolsey's troubles started back in 1967, when she was 29 and living the dream of the baby-boom generation: three young children, successful husband, and a nice house in the Northern California suburbs. "A virtually Leave It to Beaver life," she recalls wistfully.
IT'S BROKEN. But the dream life ended, she says, when her marriage fell apart. Her life spiraled out of control. Divorce. A low-paying job that couldn't cover child-care costs. And finally, welfare. "The truth of the matter is, even today I am the face of what is a typical welfare mother--white, two children, and on welfare because the father deserted or divorced," she says. She still remembers the system's dehumanizing bureaucracy and roadblocks to self-sufficiency.
A quarter-century later, to be sure, Woolsey supports radical welfare reform. "Believe me, the system is broken," she says. "It doesn't work for welfare recipients, and it doesn't work for taxpayers." But she calls the President's two-year-cap proposal "just too inflexible. It took me three years [to escape welfare], and I wasn't ever in the slow class." And despite being a rookie in Congress, she has become a key player in the debate. "Her day-to-day knowledge can't be duplicated by hearings," notes House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.).
Woolsey is pushing for a far more costly package than Clinton's. She has teamed up with Representative Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) to craft a proposal that would abolish rules that penalize work, strengthen child-support collection from absent husbands, and expand training, child care, and education programs. Its estimated $20 billion price tag would be offset largely by reductions in welfare rolls as women collect more child support, as well as by defense cuts.
Critics scoff that the funding will never materialize, transforming a big-hearted plan into a big-time budget-buster. They say a government-based solution won't deal adequately with problems such as illegitimacy and the culture of dependency spawned by the current system. Representative E. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) calls Woolsey's personal triumph "heroic" but says she ignores abuses by teenagers who have babies simply to receive more benefits.
Woolsey retorts that many politicians are more interested in demonizing welfare recipients than in helping kids. "This whole debate is
full of myths," she gripes. "We end up punishing innocent children because they are poor. What are they going to do? Go to work?"
Work is exactly what got Woolsey off welfare. In 1969, she landed a $580-a-month entry-level job at a small startup company and rose through the ranks, leaving welfare after three years and eventually becoming the company's human resources manager. She quit after 11 years to form her own company, Woolsey Personnel Service. After a seven-year stint on the Petaluma city council, Woolsey in 1992 won a House seat representing parts of
Marin and Sonoma Counties near San Francisco.
Despite her efforts, Woolsey is not sure her colleagues "have the courage" to embrace her expensive approach. She knows she won't get everything she wants. But for welfare recipients frustrated by the bureaucracy and perverse rules of the current system, just having her at the table is a big step forward.
CONGRESSWOMAN LYNN WOOLSEY AGE 56
HOME Petaluma, Calif.
TURNING POINT #1 Applies for welfare in 1968. Calls first year on the dole "the hell year of my life" after 13 baby-sitters and frustrating encounters with bureaucrats.
TURNING POINT #2 Lands an entry-level job with Harris Digital Telephone division in 1969, rising to become human resources manager. Founds her own business in 1980.
EDUCATION Completes bachelor's degree at age 42 at the University of San Francisco.
PET ISSUES Welfare reform, child-support enforcement, missing children.