u_topn picture
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

Welfare: Where Do We Go From Here?

Round One -- Response
Posted March 12, 1997


Regrettably, Mr. Edelman's and Mr. Danziger's ideas of welfare reform sound an awful lot like spending more on things that have failed in the past. Peter Edelman talks of making "necessary investments" in new government programs. This is an interesting phrase, especially since Lyndon Johnson in launching the War on Poverty called that program an "investment which will return its cost to society many fold." Our nation has since that time invested more than $6 trillion in fighting the war on poverty -- and virtually every social problem has gotten worse, not better.

When George Bush was elected President in 1988 the nation had a budget of $184 billion for means-tested welfare programs (this figure includes cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services for poor and low-income people). When Bill Clinton was first elected President the figure stood at $304 billion. Last year the total reached $404 billion. Yet no matter how much spending is increased, liberals always come back complaining and demanding more. This just isn't the way to go. Welfare, by undermining the work ethic and marriage, insidiously creates its own clientele -- the more that is spent, the more people in apparent need of aid are generated.

Total welfare spending on families with children now amounts to more than $200 billion per year, or roughly $9,000 for each poor or low-income child in the United States. The government can't even tell where most of this money is going, let alone assure that it is spent constructively. But Mr. Edelman can only return to the liberal mantra of the past thirty years: "spend more." I know it is a cliché, but now really is the time to try something different.

Sheldon Danziger refers to the GAIN program in Riverside, California, to demonstrate that work programs can't really reduce dependence. I am sure that Jason Turner got the same chuckle out of this as I did. At Riverside, AFDC caseloads were reduced by 5 percent over three years. By contrast, in much of Wisconsin and Oregon caseloads are dropping by that amount every thirty to sixty days. Conservatives have long recognized that Riverside was a flimsy, permissive program; it represents the minimum effect that can be expected from reform, not the maximum, as Mr. Danziger claims. The focus on an ineffective program like GAIN at Riverside does reveal an important truth: liberals really do not know how to reduce welfare dependence. This does not mean, however, that no one else does.

I am sympathetic to Mr. Edelman's statement that we should devote attention to reducing future dependence by exploring policies to increase economic growth and to improve education. Policies to reduce out-of-wedlock births and restore marriage should be added to this list. He might want to take a look at the "Saving Our Children" bill introduced by Congressmen J. C. Watts and James Talent. This bill will be the centerpiece of the Republican urban agenda; it seeks to increase employment in depressed urban areas through relieving high tax and regulatory burdens and to improve education by promoting school choice.

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.
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search