Does life imitate movies?

Posted: Apr 08, 2004 12:00 AM

 The four good Rocky movies (skip Rocky V, please) had a common plot element. Out of low or high self-esteem, the boxer isn't doing what he is called to do: train hard and have the "eye of the tiger." Revived midway through the movie by his wife's love or a friend's death, he gets in shape and eventually wins.
The nation of Israel had a similar problem of forgetfulness throughout the Bible. Nehemiah (chapter nine) is one of many books that notes how God performed miracles, but then "our fathers acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks." Stephen said the same thing in Acts (chapter seven), and those who could not handle the truth stoned him. Only the work of the Holy Spirit could revive Israel's Rockys.

 And what about us? Right after the 9-11 disaster, Americans of all persuasions knew we were in a war. Now, 31 months later, much is forgotten. Democrats and some Republicans bloviate about the Patriot Act, as if we were not in wartime. In the same breath, we hear complaints that the Bush administration is guilty for underestimating the terrorist threat before 9-11 and overestimating it ever since.

 The current welfare reform gridlock represents another case of misplaced memory. I spent 20 months on leave from my teaching responsibilities in 1995-1996, commuting to Washington and pushing for legislation that did not follow the laws of political entropy. Opportunity knocked: Members of Congress were desperate for some way to stop the upward march of welfare dependency

 Semi-miraculously, a strong welfare reform measure made it through both houses. Bill Clinton, seeking re-election, signed the bill. Groups like the Urban Institute and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities wailed. Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund was typical in her prediction that welfare reform "will hurt and impoverish millions of American children."

 Eight years later, even those with short memories should be able to remember the stats: Welfare rolls down over 60 percent since 1996, and not rising during recession. A 20 percent decline in poverty among children of single moms, and a greater decline in black child poverty. A 50 percent improvement in the employment rate for poor single moms. Almost every study shows great improvement.

 One criticism of the 1996 welfare reform is valid: It propelled single moms into the workforce, but not into marriage. Marriage should be the long-term goal, because only a responsible husband can provide the true safety net that a mom needs. Marriage isn't far off for some: One study of 4,700 new and unwed parents in inner cities found that at the birth of their child, half were living together, another quarter were romantically involved, and four out of five mothers and fathers were considering marriage.

 Furthermore, some 82 percent of the fathers in that "Fragile Families" study were employed, earning $17,500 on average. Sadly, only 15 percent of the unmarried couples did get hitched. If that figure could become 50 percent or more, the biggest offensive ever in our continuing wars on poverty would be underway. The innovation in this year's welfare reform bill is a "Healthy Marriage Initiative" that could help couples to commit and could help to save marriages in trouble.

 A new initiative might be asking for too much. If we could just remind old dogs of old tricks, let alone teach them new ones, we'd be a step up. Sadly, Senate Democratic leaders are now holding welfare reform hostage as they push for an increase in the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.00 an hour. That's a good thing only if the improvement in wages for some outweighs the declining job prospects for others, especially inner-city teen-agers.

 Political gambits aside, here's the basic question in fighting both welfare and terrorism: Can we remember the crises of 1996 and 2001 and be grateful for improvement, or are we casting a new movie: "Rocky Meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"?