Out of Sympathy

by Nicholas Lemann
WELFARE POLICY FOR THE 1990Sedited by Phoebe H. Cottingham and David T. Ellwood. Harvard University Press, $30.00.
IN THE WORLD of poverty experts the most important development of the 1980s has been the emergence of a “new consensus" on welfare. The new consensus is not really the compromise that its name implies: it belongs on the list of the conservative victories of the decade, because it was achieved mainly through liberals’ accepting the conservative idea that welfare can help trap people in long-term poverty. (The word “dependency” appears in all but one chapter of Welfare Policy for the 1990s.) Liberals have also accepted to some extent the conservative rhetorical position that a web of “mutual obligation” exists between welfare recipients and the government, instead of the obligation being all the government’s. In return, conservatives have made a show of embracing the feminist ideal of the working mother by agreeing that the government should help single mothers on welfare to find work—but as a concession this ranks with Brer Rabbit’s agreeing to be thrown in the briar patch, because conservatives have always wanted to make welfare mothers go to work.
The main result of the new consensus was the Family Support Act of 1988, which requires most welfare mothers to register for a job-training and placement program when their children are all three or older, and makes most men on welfare join work programs as a condition of getting their benefits. The act was passed in a flurry of hyperbole about how much good it was going to do. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for for half a century,” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the bill’s chief sponsor, said on the night that it got out of conference. The idea was in the air that the vast and daunting problems of the underclass were now well on their way to being solved.
The immediate effect of this book, a collection of essays by some of the leading figures in the field, is to dispel whatever euphoria still exists about the Family Support Act. Every one of the experts shares with Gary Burtless, of The Brookings Institution, the opinion that the act is “a modest reform package.” They all agree with Sheldon Danziger, of the University of Michigan, that because the act is aimed at getting people off welfare rather than out of poverty, its result, if discernible at all, will be to convert the welfare poor into the working poor. An essay by Robert I. Lerman, of Brandeis U niversity, makes it clear that one supposedly groundbreaking part of the act, which allows states to garnishee child-support payments from the wages of deadbeat absent fathers, is unlikely to reduce the welfare rolls by more than a percentage point or two, at best.
In quality this book falls into the middle range. Most of the essays are comprehensive and clear, but a few are much duller than they need to be. In one, nobody bothered to edit out the year-old assertion that three competing welfare-reform proposals are now pending in Congress; David Ellwood, of the Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard, makes numerous references in the book’s conclusion to a conference that is never identified. But the book is good-hearted, and it works as a composite picture of what we know now about poverty in America (and what we think now—future intellectual historians will be able to use this book as a snapshot of the collective mind of the poverty-studies elite in the late eighties). It turns out that we know enough to instill confidence that landmark legislation that would significantly help the poor could be designed, though whether it could be passed is another issue.
WELFARE POLICY IN the United States grows out of an interplay between public opinion and reality. The aspect of public opinion that serves as the baseline for all welfare policy-making is that Americans seem to be fundamentally hostile to the idea of giving money to ablebodied poor people. Our main cash grant to the poor, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, was flown in under the public’s radar when it was passed, in 1935, by being presented as a pension for widows with children. All subsequent attempts to create a true income floor for the poor have failed.
The same act that created welfare also created Social Security. Over half a century the trend has been for the parts of our welfare state aimed at the elderly to become more generous, so that poverty among the elderly has been substantially reduced, while the widows’ pension has remained fairly meager. Today only 12 percent of social-welfare spending is targeted on the poor. For this and other reasons, “widows,” meaning single mothers, have come to represent a larger and larger proportion of the American poor. This cuts two ways in terms of public attitudes toward welfare. It’s common for welfare to be blamed for the large increase over the past generation in the percentage of births that occur out of wedlock. However, the female-headed family has become for the first time an institution that is personally familiar to most of the middle class, and this may have made the welfare mother seem less like the Other. Also, by the end of the Reagan Administration the public’s thirst for cuts in poverty programs had been pretty well quenched.
Welfare benefits have been declining, and the size of the welfare rolls has been fairly stable for almost twenty years now; there is no evident “welfare crisis,” as there was in the late sixties and early seventies, when the rolls were skyrocketing. But most experts have been edging cautiously toward the idea that some women have babies out of wedlock, get on welfare, and essentially drop out of the economy for long periods of time—in other words, the view of welfare that most of us have been hearing from Uncle Fred at Thanksgiving dinner for the past few decades. The gospel among poverty experts used to be that welfare was, on the whole, a palliative that people used during brief periods of unemployment or other difficulty. Now they say that welfare works this way for some people and not for others. What has changed their minds is partly new research, especially a study by Ellwood in 1986 that showed that a quarter of welfare recipients stay on the rolls for at least ten years and absorb more than half of welfare spending. The visible deterioration of the social fabric in black ghettos is probably another reason why the experts are taking a new interest in long-term poverty.
American poverty today appears to be divisible into two categories. The larger category is made up of people who fit the liberal model by moving on and off the welfare rolls fairly quickly—or who aren’t on welfare at all but have incomes below the poverty line. About 14 percent of the population is poor. (One quarter of one percent of the population is homeless, a figure that should convey how little attention the poor get relative to their numbers.) The main need of poor people who are not long-term welfare cases—that is, today’s version of the Victorian “deserving poor"—as simply for more money, but the possibility of their getting it from the government is remote, because the current determination to prevent welfare dependency is so strong. A few ideas for giving money to the poor come up in this book, but they are not the major theme, and the creative energy behind them has been devoted to the question of packaging: how can a cash grant to the poor be made not to look like a welfare payment?
Two income-increasing policies are mentioned most often. The first is to replace the federal income tax’s personal exemption with a refundable credit, so that poor people would get a grant, rather than a deduction as they do now, based on family size. This is a poverty program disguised as a technical change in the tax laws, so it would presumably be easy to pass. The second idea is to institute “child-supportassurance payments,” in which the government, rather than the absent father, would make child-support payments to single mothers, and then would try to collect from the fathers itself. The political appeal is that everybody presumably sympathizes with and wants to help a single mother whose departed partner is a responsibility-ducking no-goodnik, (An intriguing statistical nugget in Lerman’s essay is that poor black absent fathers are eight times as likely to make childsupport payments as poor white absent fathers.)
But the long-term poor are the central subject here. Douglas Besharov, of the American Enterprise Institute, who has the only conservative essay in the book, says the salient characteristic of the long-term poor is that they tend to belong to families headed by women who have never been married. Loïc Wacquant and William Julius Wilson, of the University of Chicago, talk more in racial and geographic terms, pointing out that poverty is increasing most among minorities in the poorest urban neighborhoods. No doubt there is considerable overlap between Wacquant and Wilson’s “black ghetto underclass" and Besharoy’s “never-married mothers,”though the essays disagree on the chicken-and-egg question of whether out-of-wedlock childbirth is a cause or an effect of poverty.
A clear theme emerges from the essays about how to get the long-term poor into the work force: with what’s known in the trade as intervention. Burtless makes a detailed argument that most job-training programs—even the extremely unpopular CETA— work, in the sense that their graduates wind up more likely to be employed than do welfare recipients who haven’t gone through job training. Denise Polit and Joseph O’Hara say that mothers who have access to “free educational day care” are much more likely to get off welfare than mothers who don’t, and also show that if a new unwed mother can be persuaded not to have a second baby, her chances of finishing high school and getting off welfare will be improved. Intensive preschool education has been shown to improve the educational performance of poor children. Several of the writers praise the “case manager,”who appears to be a renamed version of a figure much reviled in the sixties and seventies—the social worker. The majority of the long-term poor seem to need remedial reading and math courses in order to get good jobs. (Enrollment in military basic training is the most common starting point for the out-of-the-underclass success stories that I’ve heard in my work as a reporter.) Again and again the writers emphasize that changes in the welfare laws will not by themselves get many people out of long-term poverty, or even off welfare; they keep suggesting different kinds of education and training as the answer.
Intervention is much more expensive than pure welfare reform. To cite the most extreme example, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation’s “supported work demonstration” in the late seventies cost $13,045 per participant. Because of the cost and the nation’s political mood today, there is a tone to these essays that could be described charitably as careful and uncharitably as cowed. Though most of the writers believe that largescale intervention would work, none of them treats it as a real possibility. As Moynihan predicted a few years ago, the federal budget deficit has had the effect of preventing new social-welfare programs from being seriously discussed, and the experts know that even if there were no deficit, the public would not be clamoring for new poverty programs. The poverty-studies community seems to be trying to win the country’s trust by adopting a calm, reasonable, unhurried tone (only the Wacquant-Wilson essay has a sense of urgency or crisis), by being sure not to make premature or exaggerated claims for the efficacy of its ideas, and by conducting impeccably designed quantitative studies to prove every point. There are no warnings in this book that inaction will lead to riots.
What the poverty experts have given up by choosing to be so cautious is any hope of playing a part in changing the national mood, though the national mood will have to change before their well-honed and essentially optimistic ideas can be implemented. It is not that poverty experts are simply disinterested academics watching American politics from the sidelines: there may be no academic specialty that is so closely attuned to the uses to which its scholarship might be put. But the political role for which most of the writers here seem to be preparing is that of the adviser who is called in to turn a President’s vague dreams into reality. Somebody else is going to have to create the climate in which nearly any of the contributors to this book would be spending time in the Oval Office.
Though the new welfare consensus may crumble when we get to the point of discussing big new government programs, it has been a force for good. We have a much clearer picture now than we did ten years ago of the different forms American poverty takes. A lot of machinery is in place for any future war on poverty which wasn’t there during the official War on Poverty, There isn’t the sense of intramural hatred among poverty experts that existed until the mid-seventies. There are admirable experiments going on in state government. No doubt we will see more useful research in the nineties. The only flaw in all this learning about poverty is that there may well be no significant result from it.
Ellwood says in the conclusion, charmingly, “I would trade away many of my favorite ideas for welfare reform for a guarantee of . . . 2-3 percent unemployment and high growth. . . .”Speaking for myself, I would trade away many of my favorite quantitative studies on long-term poverty for another Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or whatever it would take to bring about a dramatic increase in national sympathy for the poor and make the good work in this book more than just academic.