Safety net must not be pulled

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President Clinton's 1992 promise to "end welfare as we know it" is laudable. The Republican-sponsored welfare reform bill awaiting his signature isn't the answer, however.

The pending legislation — which calls for sweeping changes in Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income and food stamps — targets the neediest, including elderly emigres and the developmentally disabled. Their safety net has been pulled.

If the bill becomes law, immigrants will lose all welfare benefits except Medicaid within five years.

In addition, the new law would mandate that all welfare recipients work after two years, and enforce five-year lifetime limits. But entry-level jobs are often hard to come by.

The bill also would ban SSI for non-U.S. citizens, placing the health of elderly emigres in jeopardy because Medicaid and Medi-Cal are currently accessed through SSI.

But barriers to citizenship for the elderly, disabled and infirm are often insurmountable.

Of the nearly 35,000 emigres from the former Soviet Union living in the Bay Area, 20 percent are 65 or older. Between 5 percent and 10 percent of emigres never become U.S. citizens.

It's not for lack of desire.

Difficulties in learning the language impede their ability to pass the citizenship exam. Developmentally disabled emigres face even greater challenges.

Without the benefits promised to them upon entry to this country as religious and political refugees, many could become destitute. They will certainly be turning to the Jewish community for help.

The local Jewish Family and Children's Services organizations are preparing for the onslaught by increasing help to naturalize as many emigres as possible.

But those agencies, already strapped by government cutbacks, will need money — not only for classes but to close new welfare gaps.

In addition, Jewish organizations must speak out, holding Congress and the president accountable for making needed changes in welfare legislation. Clinton has promised to implement such reforms if he is re-elected. We must hold him to his word.

We must also do our part. For nearly 20 years, the Jewish community rallied and raised funds to rescue and assist Jews from the former Soviet Union. We can't turn our backs on them now.

We must also ensure that the needy and oppressed — regardless of race, religion or national origin — continue to receive vital assistance. We can do no less.