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AFTER Bill Clinton was elected President for the first time, a joke about welfare reform circulated among policy cognoscenti: The new President sits at his desk in the Oval Office with two buttons in front of him. One button is labeled LAUNCH NUCLEAR WEAPONS -- and we all know he will never press it. The other reads END WELFARE AS WE KNOW IT, echoing the popular line from Clinton's nomination-acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Five years later the joke no longer seems funny.

Just as the brave new world of welfare reform descends upon the dependent poor, Rebecca Blank, a labor economist at Northwestern University, publishes It Takes a Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty -- a book whose forward-looking subtitle belies its touchingly nostalgic message. Blank originally hoped to influence last year's welfare debate, and many of her policy prescriptions might have made sense as modifications of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, now abolished by Congress with Clinton's assent. The Republican insurgency of 1994 radically transformed the welfare-reform debate. "Listening to the public statements about the poor, and about the nature and history of U.S. antipoverty efforts, I became increasingly angry," Blank writes in her preface. Her book in progress took on a new purpose: to bring cool social-science expertise to a politically overheated debate. Ponderous, encyclopedic, unremittingly rational, It Takes a Nation provides an extended tutorial in poverty research. Recent social trends and most antipoverty programs are exhaustively dissected. Questions are answered and myths dispelled.

Aren't America's poor mostly black people living in urban ghetto neighborhoods? Actually, no, Blank tells us.
 

In reality, the poor are much more like "us" than like "them." The majority of poor live in mixed-income neighborhoods .... Very few are continuously on welfare for long periods of time .... [A] great majority express hopes that are very similar to the hopes of all Americans.

Won't poverty abate once cash assistance for stay-at-home mothers is limited and all poor adults are forced to get jobs? Probably not, Blank says. Poor women are already working more now than they were twenty years ago. Economic growth has generated more and more jobs, but the "primary change in the lives of the poor over the past 20 years has been the deteriorating set of economic opportunities available to less-skilled workers." Wages and job-related benefits have lost ground, especially for less-skilled men, who have in turn become less capable and less attractive fathers and husbands. National economic growth is no longer a tide that lifts all boats, and "employment has become progressively less effective at reducing poverty."

Haven't federal programs targeting the poor made things worse -- in part by crowding out religious and private charitable efforts that could more effectively help the poor without undermining their morale? Blank amasses evidence that federal antipoverty programs -- especially food stamps and Medicaid -- have made things significantly better than they otherwise would have been. Blank's reading of the data also absolves AFDC of most responsibility for causing increases in out-of-wedlock childbearing. This phenomenon has occurred even as welfare benefits have lost value, and among the nonpoor as well as the poor.

Federal, state, and private antipoverty efforts complement one another, Blank shows. She makes a striking point about what it would take to replace the $77 billion a year the federal government spends on AFDC, food stamps, and cash assistance to the elderly poor. To replace the federal contribution
 

through the religious community requires that every one of the 258,000 religious congregations (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or otherwise) that exist in this country would have to raise an additional $300,000 per year in all future years .... and spend all of the increase on services for the poor. Alternatively, if this giving is done through private charitable organizations that serve the poor, it would require those groups to raise over seven times more in private donations than they currently receive.

Blank's able analysis reveals that conservative schemes to privatize welfare cannot work -- and would probably amount to little more than further tax giveaways to the rich.

ANYONE who believes It Takes a Nation will come away thinking that the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, ending "welfare as we know it," was fundamentally misconceived. Blank tells what she would have done instead, outlining reforms that resemble the welfare changes President Clinton sponsored back in 1993. She favors three tiers of federal-state programs. The first tier would offer short-term help (such as car repairs or rental assistance) to those folks who need just a bit of aid to find or hold jobs. The second tier would provide job training and ongoing support for low-wage workers. The third tier would consist of intensive, behaviorally tailored service programs offering closely supervised assistance to adults who have trouble holding jobs and raising children on their own.

Alas, Blank's three-tiered welfare-reform scheme is pure pie in the sky at this point. Although she tries to retool her proposals as recommendations for state-level officials, her calls for greater spending on the poor, more-intensive social services, and open-ended assistance are completely out of sync with fiscal and political realities.

Here is the glaring weakness of It Takes a Nation: a failure of political analysis and imagination. From this book it is hard to tell why welfare became such a hot potato after the 1960s. Blank presents AFDC as suffering from weaknesses of "policy design" that could have been corrected if only Americans had avoided political "rhetoric" and paid adequate attention to sound policy research. We learn little about who was purveying the rhetoric, and why it resonated so broadly. Because Blank fails to analyze what went wrong politically for welfare in the past, she cannot project feasible strategies for the future.

Presented by

Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University.

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