Harsh Reality: Re-reading The Contract With America

Alana Heiser

Writer’s comment: My hands trembled as I walked out of my English 103A final. I could not believe it; nothing like this had ever happened to me before. To calm myself, I took a deep breath and walked down the hallway. For the third time in less than five minutes I pulled my paper out of its folder; I was hoping that if I read Jackie’s comments again I would understand what she had written. Then the reality of her remarks sank in and I wanted to run out of the building. I had to share the news with someone: Jackie had just asked me to submit my research paper to Prized Writing. I was shocked and elated.
—Alana Heiser

Instructor’s comment: She hesitated at the door of my office, biting her lip and proffering the draft of her research paper with the words: “You said off-the-wall was OK, right?” I started laughing. Alana had taken quite literally my exuberant demands that she experiment wildly with thinking, with reading, with writing over the ten weeks of English 103A. Her first paper—a wry, ironic personal statement that defied the accepted techniques of personal statement writing—had enthralled me; her subsequent papers gave me the opportunity to see Alana’s quirky, lively relationship with language develop over the quarter. The research paper proved no exception. Alana made the techniques we discussed in class absolutely her own; she wrote a deft and probing analysis of the Contract with America, hooking her reader in with a fine introduction, with a tone that jumps off the page and bites, and with a frighteningly apt conclusion.
—Jacqueline Dello Russo, English Department

Welcome to the year 2002. It has been seven years since the Republican Congress of 1995 passed the notorious Contract with America. You will be happy to know that Congress accomplished its goal: we do have a balanced budget. But you should probably be aware of a few of the changes that have occurred in the United States since then. Where should I begin? . . . I hope you are not pregnant and single, and please do not tell me that you are on welfare and have decided to have another child. Oh, goodness! I must tell you that welfare as you remember it in 1995 does not exist. Seven years ago Newt Gingrich and his cronies decided that any unmarried woman under the age of eighteen would no longer be eligible to receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). That smile on your face must be one of relief; that’s right, I remember, you just had your eighteenth birthday. In that case, I hope you have recently honed your job skills, because in order to continue receiving AFDC, you will have to work full time. Good luck finding a baby-sitter and job training, because the Republicans inadvertently left those out of their Contract.
         Believe me, that isn’t all that has changed over the past few years. Thinking about going to a university next fall? Think again. If you thought the price of education was bad in 1995, wait until I tell you about it now. Remember the good old Work Study program which provided jobs for 750,000 university students? It’s gone. I bet you are thinking, “That’s not so bad; at least we still have loans.” I am sorry to have to be the one to tell you this: those are gone too. Since the government decided to do away with the Stafford Loan program, we each pay an extra $4,000 in interest to continue our education.
         Although this scenario of the future is hypothetical, it may, unfortunately, become reality if the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, with the help of the Senate, passes the Contract with America. This bill was drafted by Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House, in order to balance the budget by the year 2002. In order to do this, “Republicans will need to find spending cuts totaling $1.2 trillion dollars” (Zuckerman 106). This means that an average of $170 billion a year will be “whacked out of the anticipated federal spending over the next seven fiscal years, beginning in 1996” (Church 35). This puts many federally funded programs in dire straits.
         The Contract with America is a ten-point plan which proposes to make a wide array of changes: welfare reform, educational cuts, congressional term limits, and a balanced budget amendment. These are just four of the items the Contract will modify if it is approved by politicians. It is interesting to note that “fewer than 30 percent of Americans had even heard of it [the Contract with America] when they voted for a Republican sweep in November” (Wilkinson 35). And according to a Time magazine poll taken in January 1995, only 34 percent of those surveyed “approve of the job that the U.S. Congress is doing” (Church 34). This just shows that although Republicans are marching ahead with their Contract, few Americans understand and “approve” it.
         Both welfare reform and educational cuts are discussed in a subsection of the Contract with America: The Personal Responsibility Act. Welfare reform, as proposed by the Republicans, would severely limit AFDC by denying coverage to unmarried women under the age of eighteen and establishing mandatory work programs for those receiving AFDC (Katz). In addition to reducing welfare, Congress has also proposed cutting education in order to balance the budget. Many researchers on the topic believe that the educational cuts proposed by Congress would have tremendous negative effects on education at every level. These are the deepest cuts proposed for education since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The Personal Responsibility Act specifically targets urban public schools and universities and will have the greatest impact on poor and minority students of every age (Celis 7).
         Term limits have also been proposed by Republicans in the Contract, but many analysts believe that they will never become law because “those with power rarely relinquish it voluntarily” (Kramer 36), and setting term limits would obviously restrict the amount of power senators and representatives have. Although many in Congress do not want term limits included in the Contract with America, the American public feels differently. “Limit proposals have passed overwhelmingly in every state in which they have been on the ballot (22 so far), but a dozen term-limit bills were introduced in the past Congress and none was debated, even at a subcommittee level” (Kramer 36).
         Americans polled by Time magazine also favor amending the Constitution to force a balanced federal budget (Church 34), though 59 percent would not support the amendment “if it may result in higher taxes or cuts in spending programs such as Medicare and Social Security” (35). And if this amendment were to be put into effect, many cynics believe that the chance that it would actually bring down federal spending so that it was equal to revenues by the year 2002 is nil (35). This puts Congress and the Contract with America in a bind. The American people want to force the government to balance the budget, but they seem unwilling to cut any federal programs that would actually reduce Social Security, Medicare, and defense spending. In 1995, Social Security and Medicare accounted for “39 percent of noninterest federal spending ($1.3 trillion)” (Samuelson 22).
         So instead of putting big ticket items like Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block, the Republicans have decided to do away with welfare, which constitutes only 1 percent of the entire federal budget, 3 percent if food stamps are added (Campaign for Media Fairness on Welfare) and education. Because Congress has chosen to change these programs, which represent such a small fraction of the federal budget, they will have to be drastically altered, and in some cases completely eliminated, in order to balance the federal budget.
         From the data I have analyzed, I surmise that the Contract with America is a manipulative piece of propaganda which is being used by Republicans to subvert our social welfare system and to eliminate many fundamental educational programs. By proposing term limits, which the House of Representatives seems to have no intention of including in the final draft of the Contract, and by focusing on balancing the budget—two issues that appeal to the American public—members of Congress have been able to gain support for the Contract with America. Since Republicans have successfully presented only the information to the media which will help pass their bill, they have left out very important facts about welfare and education that I think would change the way that Americans viewed Congress and the Contract with America. I believe that the proposals to change welfare, suggested in the Contract, are sexist and perpetuate stereotypes about what Republicans believe is the ideal, nuclear family. Elimination of many college loan programs and the Work Study program will severely limit which individuals can continue their education and will likely decrease diversity at every university. By including term limits and a balanced budget in the Contract, Republicans have successfully created a smoke screen that diverts attention away from their real agenda: imposing their morality on poor women and limiting the diversity on college campuses. This is an insidious plan.
         Because we have allowed myths about welfare to circulate for so long, it is now easy for Republicans to propose drastic changes in welfare on the basis that they are needed to maintain any semblance of order in our relief programs—even though this is not true. Thus, Republicans have written the Personal Responsibility Act, an act which includes extremely sexist language. For instance, the Contract would give states the right to reduce AFDC payments by up to $75 monthly to women with no high school degree. Republicans have said that this clause was included to reduce illiteracy; I presume illiteracy would decrease because women would stay in school and continue their education, even after they became pregnant. And I would agree with the Republicans that this does sound like a good idea: the better educated you are in our society the more jobs you will find available to you. So why, then, did they only target women in this clause? There is no equivalent policy geared toward men. Republicans are punishing female high school drop-outs simply because they are women. We cannot allow the Contract to be approved when sexist clauses like this are included.
         There is an even more covert aspect to the Personal Responsibility Act—which, again, has to do with single mothers and their AFDC payments—that needs to be addressed. According to Republicans, it is so important that children be raised in an environment that includes a man and a woman that they are willing to deny payments to any woman who does not marry either the biological father of her child or another man who legally adopts her child. This belief is sexist, homophobic, and coercive. Republicans are assuming that single women cannot raise their children without the aid of men, and this is clearly a sexist belief; women have been raising beautiful families without the aid of men for hundreds of years. It is also hard to imagine that Republicans would allow little children to go without basic necessities because their mothers were not married to men, but this is exactly what the Contract states.
         And what about women who choose to live with other women? Their child would be raised in a two-parent household but not with the “right” parents, and so Republicans would deny them AFDC, a homophobic and potentially harmful move. I cannot even begin to understand why Republicans would try to force their morality on others. If women are happier raising their child alone, or with another woman, than they would be with a man, aren’t they more likely to raise healthier children and get a job more quickly and consequently no longer be dependent on AFDC? Raising healthy children would save the government money in health care, and getting off AFDC would accomplish exactly what the Republicans are attempting to do through the Personal Responsibility Act.
         My question is this: don’t women know best how to raise their children? The Republicans do not even have the decency to treat women on AFDC as adults. By making all of their decisions for them, Republicans impose their beliefs on AFDC recipients, and if these women do not play by the Republicans’ “rules,” they will not receive AFDC payments. By forcing women to marry or risk poverty, Republicans will have successfully imposed their morality on poor women. Poor women will no longer have a choice about the environment in which they want to raise their child; they will have to marry a man so that they will be able to provide food, shelter, and clothing for their child.
         As Republicans have shown, they have no qualms about denying necessities to children if their mothers do not marry. They are also willing to cut education programs to balance the federal budget, which will have detrimental effects on college campuses everywhere. Some who have studied the topic, including Francis Wilkinson, believe that low-income students will feel the greatest impact. By denying low-income students the money they would need to finance an advanced degree, the Contract is being classist. If you are fortunate enough to be able to pay for your education without a loan you can still go to college, but if you are poor you will no longer be able to attend college. Because Republicans are willing to cut loan programs, a move that will directly affect low-income students more than any other group, universities will become elitist institutions that only the very wealthiest can attend.
         In our country, it is an unfortunate fact that many of these low-income students are people of color and other minorities, often first-generation college students who contribute to the racial and ethnic diversity on campus. Once universities become the elitist institutions the Republicans want them to be, diversity on campuses will become virtually nonexistent; without loans, many of these students will no longer have access to the money that has allowed them to attend universities. Limiting diversity on campuses will have a detrimental effect on everyone. Currently, universities are known as centers of eclectic thinking and unconventional teaching, but this perception will change if they are allowed to become homogenous institutions that only one type of person has the resources to attend. If this happens, everyone will suffer, because—as anyone who has ever attended a university will tell you—as much learning happens outside of the lecture hall as inside it. After all, how much can you really learn from those who have had exactly the same life experiences that you have had? Diversity is the key to any university.
         If the Contract passes with all of its educational cuts, many will use the myths that have continued over the years about minorities to perpetuate stereotypes. For instance, anyone who believes in the myth of African Americans as stupid or lazy will have it confirmed by observing that this group of students is not well represented in the graduating class of 2002. In reality, they would not be graduating from universities in the numbers they should because Republicans believed they could balance the budget by taking money away from education. Members of Congress think that they are going to help our generation by handing us a government with a balanced budget and term limits, but do they really believe that without college degrees we will run the government well?
         By talking about a balanced budget and term limits, Republicans have been able to divert attention away from their real agenda, while effective maneuvering has left the American public seeing only what the Republicans want them to see. There is no talk of the sexism, the homophobia, or the classism which are written into the Contract with America and which make it such a horrifying document. All three elements exist in this bill, but they are so subtle that they cannot be seen at the surface, and if they cannot be seen, they cannot be fought.
         Thinking about the sexism, classism, and homophobia that are written into the Contract with America, I am left wondering how poor, uneducated women of color will survive if this bill is to pass. Not only will their AFDC payments be drastically reduced, but they will have no way to get off welfare because Republicans are closing the door to education and sealing it so tightly that these women will never make enough money to attend a university. By denying access to education, Republicans are condemning these women to a life with no future. Imagine what it would be like to be one of these women, and then step back and realize that we are all only one job, one spouse, one divorce, one pregnancy, or one crisis away from welfare—which would no longer exist if Republicans have their way.

Works Cited

Celis, William. “Deepest U.S. Cuts Since ’81 Are Proposed for Education.” The New York Times 18 March 1995: 7.

Church, George. “Hard Going for the Easy Part.” Time 23 January 1995: 34-36.

Human Service Institute. Campaign for Media Fairness on Welfare. Eleven Facts Everyone Should Know About Welfare. New York.

Katz, Jeffrey. “Highlights of Welfare Proposal.” CQ 19 November 1994: 3335.

Kramer, Michael. “The Hypocrite’s Oath.” Time 23 January 1995: 36.

Samuelson, Robert. “We Are a Nation in Deep Denial.” Newsweek 13 March 1995: 22.

Wilkinson, Francis. “Before You Sign On The Dotted Line . . .” Rolling Stone 26 January 1995: 35-36.

Zuckerman, Mortimer. “The GOP Contract’s Fine Print.” U.S. News and World Report 6 March 1995: 106.