The compassionate side of President George Bush's conservatism surfaced in a significant way this month.
First, he signed the new federal education act that will energize the effort to improve public schools by holding them more accountable for their performance, by investing in improved teaching, and by making sure all kids can read by the third grade.
Although not perfect, this legislation puts some significant political and financial muscle behind politicians' and educators' rhetoric about improving schools.
The necessity for bringing that force to bear was underscored by a report of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research organization, on the improvement in quality schooling that results when the adults in and around individual schools act on their commitment—and common sense.
The report, "Dispelling the Myth Revisited," followed an earlier report. It identified nearly 4,600 schools across the nation that enrolled mostly black or Hispanic youngsters, or enrolled mostly poor youngsters, or both—and scored among the top third of the schools of their state in reading and mathematics.
If the federal legislation the President signed lives up to expectations by pushing more schools to do their jobs and encouraging parents to hold educators' feet to the fire, then we should see that number grow exponentially. America's children will be the big winners.
Right after signing the new education law, the President proposed restoring food stamp benefits for legal immigrants who were declared ineligible when the Clinton Administration and Congress reformed welfare five years ago. This will be a provision of the budget he'll send to Congress next month.
Food stamps are available to people with incomes up to 30 percent above the poverty level. Put another way, a three-person household would qualify if its gross monthly income wasn't greater than $1,585.
The political oddsmakers say such a move is very likely to happen, in part because the Senate has already been considering revising the welfare act to correct this particular grievous mistake. The changes would make at least 363,000 legal immigrants eligible for food stamps.
The welfare changes of 1996 enacted by Congress and signed by President Clinton forced more than 800,000 immigrants off the food-stamp program, and also left them ineligible for numerous other kinds of federally-financed assistance.
Those who supported this move asserted that the availability of food stamps lured immigrants to America and then let them off the hook about supporting themselves.
Back then Republican Senator Phil Gramm, of Texas said that "Immigrants should come to the U.S. with their sleeves rolled up, ready to work, not with their hands out, ready to go on welfare."
That was dumb thinking then, and it's dumber now, because the deepening of the recession has put a tight squeeze on immigrant workers who need food stamps to keep working and supporting their families.
But, despite the President's action, the sentiments expressed by Senator Gramm then still survive in the Congress. Republican Representative Tom Tancredo, of Colorado, chairman of the 55-member Immigration Reform Caucus in the House, pledged to oppose the legislation because it would "entice people to come to the United States to be on welfare."
Referring to the fact that many of the immigrants standing to benefit from the President's proposal are Hispanic, Rep. Tancredo added, "The Democrats have been enormously successful in buying votes through welfare. That's all this is, a sop to a Democratic-leaning voter bloc, an attempt to expand our political base by including the Hispanic vote."
Well, who can doubt the White House's calculation of the importance of the Hispanic vote to Republican political fortunes—the President and his advisors have made that plain enough.
But that doesn't make this legislation any less the right thing to do. That was the case even before the recession struck the nation's economy last March.
Since September 11th, we've had more than enough alarming evidence—in the rise in the unemployment rolls, in the increased numbers of individuals and families in homeless shelters, in the increased numbers of people depending now on food pantries to feed themselves and their families—that the federal government must act quickly to relieve the pain and suffering millions of Americans, citizens and legal immigrants, are enduring.
Now that President Bush has moved to restore food-stamp eligibility to legal immigrants, he should push for legislation to shore up the economic safety net for all low-wage workers who've been hit by the recession.
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