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Welfare: Where Do We Go From Here?

Round Two -- Concluding Remarks
Posted March 25, 1997


If it is true, as Robert Rector claims, that welfare recipients "leave in droves" and find employment that sustains them and their families when they are asked to perform community work, then we need look no further for a solution to the welfare problem. But I don't believe it for a minute.

No threat can create a job for those temporarily on the rolls owing to market fluctuations. And most of those on welfare for extended periods have serious employability problems, including functional (or complete) illiteracy, disabilities, and mental illness, not to mention cultural barriers. An unskilled minority person reading at a second-grade level is not going to be able to get and keep a well-paying job, no matter how much you threaten.

Required community service may do some good for the community and the welfare recipient's self-esteem. But you must also provide free child care and transportation or you're merely asking the applicant to jump through an impossible hoop, then claiming success when he or she fails and consequently is stricken from the welfare rolls.

It is too easy for Rector and his ilk to blame welfare recipients for being poor enough to qualify for aid. But safety-net programs do not create illegitimacy, nor do most welfare applicants plan to collect government money as a career. As a person who grew up on welfare, I know that poverty is not elective. And for children -- the group that welfare is supposed to protect -- dependence is not elective either.

Turner is correct to question the assumption that poverty creates all of society's ills. But he substitutes a far more ridiculous assumption -- that dependence on government money creates all evil. Does he mean that the idle rich are the group most responsible for the "decay in the social and family fabric"? Or was he referring to tenured faculty?

Edelman recognizes the worst parts of this reform, but he falls short in his prescription. There is no point in creating publicly supported jobs to replace the private sector jobs being shipped overseas. We must rearrange trade policies to keep jobs here. I recognize that this part of the solution is beyond the AFDC/food-stamp debate, but that's inevitable. Welfare does not exist in a vacuum.

Danziger seems to have the best handle on what it means to be poor in America -- and accepting welfare is just one aspect of being poor in America, an aspect that most poor families struggle to avoid. His comments remind us that poverty is the problem -- not welfare. True welfare reform will address poverty and its many causes -- health, education, culture, and the economy -- before it seeks to take money, housing, and food stamps away from dependent children.

But as this roundtable demonstrates, we are a long way from making any serious attempt to do away with poverty. We can't even frame the question. People like Turner and Rector would just try to convince us that poor people prefer poverty, in much the same way Reagan once claimed that the homeless are homeless because they prefer to sleep out under the stars.

-- Donald Caswell

I for one would prefer moving beyond the public policy on welfare and discussing the issue of poverty. Our economic systems excels at generating wealth, not distributing it. The "middle class" seems on the path to extinction. The move from an agrarian society to an industrial society allowed vast increases in the standard of living. The transition to a service-based economy has eroded this progress. Now, technology seems to be displacing workers in the service sector. After years of false alarms, technology may finally destroy large numbers of jobs.

For those fortunate enough to have the right market basket of skills, there are substantial rewards. What of those who are left? Welfare debate skims the surface of a larger issue. What will our economy and society look like in the future? As computers become more and more able to replicate human activity, who will work? And how will those who cannot work survive?

Like cockroaches, policy wonks will probably survive any future catastrophe. The world they inherit, however, may be an unfriendly place indeed. A failure to address the issue of poverty will leave us all poor.

-- Ken Decker

I was an Income Assistance Worker for the past five years. I consider myself to have a bachelor's degree in welfare, not only because I issued millions of dollars of your money, but because at a point in my life I received food stamps and Medicaid for my family while attending college with a GSL guaranteed by you the taxpayers (thank you very much, and yes I am current on my payments).

During the past five years I learned a couple of things: Government is not the cure, it is the problem. Most, if not all, of the people dictating the legislature to reform welfare have no earthly idea of what they are doing. In my state career, most of the people coming to our office were single parents, some working, others receiving AFDC and Medicaid along with food stamps. I, as a worker, got tired of seeing the same people coming for reviews every six months. They had made no real effort to get off the system, some were expecting to add new babies to their cases and get a little bit more. I always felt, and still do, that single mothers and fathers do need help. But it is not my, your, the government's, or anybody else's responsibility to fix these people's problems. We want to help. But we want these people to one day go away and become productive. That is not happening. And it is not going to happen any time soon. Those making the laws have themselves spent little or no time in their communities learning about the issues their community is facing and how their decisions will affect us. They mostly rely on the expertise of state employees trying to keep their jobs and their budgets in the black.

People who want to help the poor have their hearts in the right place. But do the poor want that kind of help? We want to protect them and make sure they are doing okay. We worry about the children, and use that as an excuse to tax and create a bigger government. But we will not experience any real reform until we start making policies that protect us, the taxpayers. Providing training, child care, jobs in the public and private sector and even more is not going to do any good if the people we are trying to help do not want to do what it takes to live "the American dream."

-- Elara

See other reader responses in The Body Politic.

Questions for the participants from David Whitman, a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report, who frequently writes about social policy.

For Peter Edelman:

1) Starting with Richard Nixon's Family Assistance Plan, the political left in the U.S. has had a long and not-so-proud history of opposing even generous welfare legislation advanced by presidents of both parties. The pattern among liberals has been to fasten on some inadequacy in a proposal as a means of dismissing the entire bill. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, the left let "the perfect become the enemy of the good.'' Jimmy Carter's Program for Better Jobs and Income, which had as its centerpiece the largest public service jobs program for welfare recipients since at least the New Deal, was spurned as "slavefare." Similarly, liberal congressmen and unions attacked Bill Clinton's 1994 welfare bill. The Children's Defense Fund even opposed the relatively modest Family Support Act of 1988.

1) Three, related questions: Do you think the left's repeated unwillingness to fight for the welfare reform proposals of various presidents contributed to the passage of the new welfare law? Do you think your article continues the tradition of urging a liberal wish list of reforms that will never pass Congress? And lastly, why should readers not respond to your article about the dire consequences of the new law as just one more example of Peter crying wolf?

2) Do you think, in general, it's preferable for a single mother to be working full-time in low-wage work, even if she makes, say, $900 a year less than she would have if she had stayed on welfare? Or do you think she is better off on welfare with the extra $900 in income?

For Robert Rector:

1) Conservatives, not so long ago, used to fret about forcing single mothers to work while their young children were shipped en masse to state-licensed day-care facilities. Do you have any fears that the children of welfare mothers will be damaged by spending large amounts of time in formal or informal day care (or was that traditional concern of conservatives misguided)?

For Sheldon Danziger:

1) Most Americans would agree with conservatives that welfare mothers shoulder a heavy responsibility for their own plight. Members of the public take a dim view of women on welfare -- people belief that they tend to have a lackluster work ethic, lack discipline and commitment in their personal lives, have poor parenting skills, and are too ready to turn to the government for aid to support children after dad vanishes. Your comments, though, seem to suggest that welfare mothers are essentially pawns buffeted about by structural changes in the job market. To what extent do you think individual choice and self-destructive attitudes play a role in creating dependency?

For Jason Turner:

1) Based on Governor Thompson's tenure in Wisconsin, do you expect that the new welfare law will increase or decrease child poverty and out-of-wedlock childbearing?

2) Suppose, as has been widely projected, the new welfare law does increase the ranks of children living in poverty. Would an increase in child poverty trouble you?

3) Your claim that government-created jobs of last resort for welfare recipients are a central component of the new welfare law is baffling. As Sheldon Danziger notes, there is no money specifically earmarked for job programs under the new law (instead it is bundled in with block grant money). The Clinton White House, Republicans on the Hill, and many governors have repeatedly voiced their opposition to large public-service jobs programs for welfare recipients. Public service jobs or workfare programs (in which welfare recipients work off their relief checks) are simply two options that states are allowed to pursue to put welfare recipients to work. Could you please clear up this confusion for online readers -- and tell us whether you think all states should provide guaranteed jobs as a last resort for welfare recipients?

Roundtable Overview

Introduction and opening questions by Jack Beatty

Round One -- Posted March 12, 1997

Round Two -- Posted March 25, 1997

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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