A coalition of Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish religious groups and charities Thursday urged Congress to reject pending legislation that would overhaul the welfare system.
If Congress approves the measure, which would put states in control of welfare policies, impose a two-year limit on welfare benefits and reduce food stamps and cash assistance to the poor, the religious leaders said President Clinton should veto the bill.
"This bill is not about ending welfare as we know it; it's about creating child poverty as we haven't seen it," said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, the nation's largest grass-roots Christian anti-hunger network.
"We are appalled by indications that President Clinton, former Sen. Bob Dole and many congressional leaders are supportive of nutrition and welfare cuts that would likely push an additional 1-million children into poverty," Beckmann said.
As Beckmann and the other religious leaders spoke, the House began debating its version of the welfare bill, a measure that was expected to pass. The Senate was expected to take up the issue Thursday and to quickly pass a bill.
Republicans challenged the opponents' contentions that the bill would throw more children into poverty.
"We live in a world where children have no hope for tomorrow," said Rep. Bill Kolbe, R-Ariz. "This bill ends long-term (welfare) dependency; this bill restores power and flexibility to the states."
But the religious leaders rejected the GOP arguments.
"This bill is . . . a bunch of sound bites thrown together as a piece of legislation," said John Carr, secretary for social development and world peace for the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Roman Catholic bishops social policy arm.
"It reflects the needs of politicians rather than the needs of the poor."
Both Clinton and the GOP-led Congress have promised to "end welfare as we know it" and promote the movement of poor people from welfare to work.
The pending House bill cuts $60-billion from welfare and nutrition programs over the next six years, including about $26-billion from the food stamp program.
The measure would end the 60-year-old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, the main cash assistance program for the estimated 12.8-million people on welfare, including 8.8-million children. Rather, it would provide states a lump sum of money, or block grants, to devise their own welfare programs. While giving states such flexibility, the measure would impose strict limits on the time a family can be on welfare and would deny benefits to children if the mother becomes pregnant while on welfare, a provision known as the "family cap."
The "family cap" has come under particular criticism by religious groups because they think it punishes children for their mother's behavior. The Catholic bishops also argue that it will lead to an increase in abortions.
"Under this provision," said Carr, "many states will tell a young woman "we'll pay for your abortion, but we will not help you raise your child in dignity.' "
The religious coalition has fought the GOP proposals since they were first announced two years ago and was influential in persuading Clinton to veto earlier versions of the bill. Clinton has sent mixed signals about the current legislation. Wednesday, the White House said Clinton had a dozen objections to the bill and urged the House to adopt a version with more moderate cuts.
Beckmann said the group is seeking a meeting with Clinton but has not heard from the White House.
Sister Christine Vladimiroff, president of Second Harvest, a network of 181 regional food banks serving 26-million Americans annually, said the sharp reduction in the food stamp program would mean "20-billion fewer meals for hungry Americans" over the next six years.
"That is an unacceptable proposition in a nation with too many hungry people already," she said.
Critics of the bill cited moral as well as policy arguments.
"If there is one central principle of economic justice that dominates the 3,000 years of Jewish and communal practice, it is this: The moral test of any society is what its economic and social policies do for the most vulnerable of God's children, and above all, the children of God's children," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, echoed Saperstein, saying: "Our spiritual heritage charges us to care for all, especially those caught in poverty. . . . The moral vision that claims us has led us to craft a society committed to providing for and protecting the poor, the vulnerable, the children, the elderly, the strangers in our midst."