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Welfare: Where Do We Go From Here?

Round Two -- Concluding Remarks
Posted March 25, 1997


Let me begin by responding to some of the online comments. I agree with those who said this is too narrow a debate. I always say we should be talking about poverty rather than merely welfare, and that in turn opens up discussion about an array of issues. Globalization has enormous implications for the quality and quantity of work available in the United States, as does the structure of the American economy and the question of how employment-oriented our macroeconomic policy is. Alan Blinder caused a storm of controversy when, as Vice-Chair of the Federal Reserve, he suggested very mildly that the Fed's governing legislation includes authority to take employment-policy aims into account. If a broader take on the issues were on the table, the quality of education that low-income children receive would come up for examination, as would the performance of every major institution in our society that is supposed to serve the poor at least as well as it serves everyone else. Issues of race and gender would come into focus, since intersections of race and economics, and gender and economics, are deeply implicated in the poverty picture.

I disagree with those who characterize me as a spender and dismiss my arguments as the predictable liberal position. I do want a greater expenditure of public funds -- I plead guilty to that (and I do think it's appropriate to call it an investment) -- but I think there are issues of institutional reform, values, private-sector involvement, community-building, community responsibility, and personal responsibility involved as well. I think I said all of this in my Atlantic cover story, but I don't mind saying it again.

To get to some of David Whitman's questions:

1) Did liberals oppose every reform? That's a caricature. I could say the same thing about conservatives. The Nixon reform was ultimately killed by conservatives, not liberals. There were certainly people on the left who said it was too punitive, especially after Congress started tinkering with it, but there were people on the right who said it was too generous. I myself thought many of the proposals of that period were not sufficiently work-oriented. I had huge fights with George McGovern's advisers in 1972 because I thought his $1,000-a-person proposal was not sufficiently work-oriented (although that wasn't its only problem, I might add).

2) How much income should a welfare recipient be willing to give up in order to have a job? I would answer this way. Making sure work pays enough to get people out of poverty is a different issue from what individuals should be willing to do to bring work into their own household. I do think there are jobs that individuals should accept that are substandard by societal measures, but I also think all who believe that this work pays too little or that it should be conducted under better conditions have an urgent obligation to be organizing and lobbying to improve things.

Perhaps we all now agree on one thing: the new law will lay bare the effects of pulling the plug. I just wish the experiment didn't involve human guinea pigs. And, besides worrying about the children who will be hurt, I worry that when there are not enough relevant jobs and there is not enough sustained effort to help the needy to get and keep jobs, we will have another round of finger-pointing at the poor. Just because the status quo allowed too many to escape personal responsibility doesn't mean the answer was to pull the plug. There was a middle ground. Crying wolf? I don't think so.

We have a chance to minimize the injury and maybe even do better than that by thoughtful implementation of the new law and careful documentation of its impact. In a few places the law has stimulated a serious focus on what it will take to create sustained employment for welfare recipients. Unfortunately, there are too many places where the opposite is true.

The danger in all of this comes from undue optimism. Dire predictions? We shall see.

Roundtable Overview

Introduction and opening questions by Jack Beatty

Round One -- Posted March 12, 1997

Round Two -- Posted March 25, 1997

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