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Welfare: Where Do We Go From Here?

Round Two -- Concluding Remarks
Posted March 25, 1997


Sheldon Danziger and Peter Edelman are obviously upset by the fact that work-oriented reforms have cut welfare dependence by 55 percent in Wisconsin and 40 percent in Oregon. This vexation is understandable: the hard fact of rapidly declining caseloads threatens to overturn nearly all of the preconceived notions about dependence that liberals have held for the past twenty years.

To claim, as Edelman does, that the caseload declines in Wisconsin and Oregon have been caused by a robust economy is simply silly. Historically, a hot economy has never had even a fraction of this impact on dependence.

On the linkage of poverty and social problems, Danziger repeats the core liberal syllogism: poverty causes social problems; welfare reduces poverty; therefore, more welfare will reduce social problems. However, none of the studies he cites actually show that giving families extra AFDC income produces better outcomes for children. I challenge him to produce any study showing that welfare has a benign effect on children except in the limited case where a program alleviates significant malnutrition.

It is helpful to put Danziger's claim that "poverty" causes social problems in historical perspective. Nearly everybody reading this debate has parents or grandparents who were "poor" by today's standards. If it were true, as liberals claim, that "poverty" causes crime, lowers IQ, increases illegitimacy, and so on, then the nation, in our grandparent's time (when nearly everybody was poor), should have been awash with slow-witted homicidal maniacs. Promiscuity, illegitimacy, violence, and drug use should have been at record levels. In reality, most social problems were limited in the earlier period despite the lower material living standard. Social problems have dramatically increased as material living standards have improved.

Liberals put the cart before the horse. By holding steadfastly to the doctrine that poverty causes low aptitude and problem behaviors -- rather than that low ability and problem behaviors cause poverty -- liberals have led the nation into one costly welfare failure after another during the past thirty years. The time has come for commonsense reform.

Responding to David Whitman's specific questions, I would say that conservatives such as myself still do fret about separating children from mothers and pushing them into daycare. However, in general, the negative effects of dependence outweigh those of daycare, and the effects of daycare itself seem to be more benign for children of poorly educated parents than for children of the middle class. Still, the long-run goal of reform must be to reduce illegitimacy and restore marriage, not simply to generate many more single working mothers.

The big lesson to be learned from Wisconsin and Oregon is that the prospect of being forced to perform community-service work in exchange for benefits propels recipients quickly off the rolls and into private-sector jobs. In Oregon six out of seven recipients who are offered community-service work or subsidized employment end up in non-subsidized employment instead. Thus the impact of mandatory community service is large even though the actual numbers performing community-service work are small.

Yes, it is true that welfare reform will entail more spending on daycare, training, and administration, but these costs will be greatly offset by savings from shrinking caseloads.

Roundtable Overview

Introduction and opening questions by Jack Beatty

Round One -- Posted March 12, 1997

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