The Next Liberalism

AFTER Bill Clinton was elected President for the first time, a joke about welfare reform circulated among policy cognoscenti: The new President sits at his desk in the Oval Office with two buttons in front of him. One button is labeled LAUNCH NUCLEAR WEAPONS -- and we all know he will never press it. The other reads END WELFARE AS WE KNOW IT, echoing the popular line from Clinton's nomination-acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Five years later the joke no longer seems funny.

Just as the brave new world of welfare reform descends upon the dependent poor, Rebecca Blank, a labor economist at Northwestern University, publishes It Takes a Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty -- a book whose forward-looking subtitle belies its touchingly nostalgic message. Blank originally hoped to influence last year's welfare debate, and many of her policy prescriptions might have made sense as modifications of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, now abolished by Congress with Clinton's assent. The Republican insurgency of 1994 radically transformed the welfare-reform debate. "Listening to the public statements about the poor, and about the nature and history of U.S. antipoverty efforts, I became increasingly angry," Blank writes in her preface. Her book in progress took on a new purpose: to bring cool social-science expertise to a politically overheated debate. Ponderous, encyclopedic, unremittingly rational, It Takes a Nation provides an extended tutorial in poverty research. Recent social trends and most antipoverty programs are exhaustively dissected. Questions are answered and myths dispelled.

Aren't America's poor mostly black people living in urban ghetto neighborhoods? Actually, no, Blank tells us.

In reality, the poor are much more like "us" than like "them." The majority of poor live in mixed-income neighborhoods .... Very few are continuously on welfare for long periods of time .... [A] great majority express hopes that are very similar to the hopes of all Americans.

Won't poverty abate once cash assistance for stay-at-home mothers is limited and all poor adults are forced to get jobs? Probably not, Blank says. Poor women are already working more now than they were twenty years ago. Economic growth has generated more and more jobs, but the "primary change in the lives of the poor over the past 20 years has been the deteriorating set of economic opportunities available to less-skilled workers." Wages and job-related benefits have lost ground, especially for less-skilled men, who have in turn become less capable and less attractive fathers and husbands. National economic growth is no longer a tide that lifts all boats, and "employment has become progressively less effective at reducing poverty."

Haven't federal programs targeting the poor made things worse -- in part by crowding out religious and private charitable efforts that could more effectively help the poor without undermining their morale? Blank amasses evidence that federal antipoverty programs -- especially food stamps and Medicaid -- have made things significantly better than they otherwise would have been. Blank's reading of the data also absolves AFDC of most responsibility for causing increases in out-of-wedlock childbearing. This phenomenon has occurred even as welfare benefits have lost value, and among the nonpoor as well as the poor.

Federal, state, and private antipoverty efforts complement one another, Blank shows. She makes a striking point about what it would take to replace the $77 billion a year the federal government spends on AFDC, food stamps, and cash assistance to the elderly poor. To replace the federal contribution

through the religious community requires that every one of the 258,000 religious congregations (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, or otherwise) that exist in this country would have to raise an additional $300,000 per year in all future years .... and spend all of the increase on services for the poor. Alternatively, if this giving is done through private charitable organizations that serve the poor, it would require those groups to raise over seven times more in private donations than they currently receive.

Blank's able analysis reveals that conservative schemes to privatize welfare cannot work -- and would probably amount to little more than further tax giveaways to the rich.

ANYONE who believes It Takes a Nation will come away thinking that the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, ending "welfare as we know it," was fundamentally misconceived. Blank tells what she would have done instead, outlining reforms that resemble the welfare changes President Clinton sponsored back in 1993. She favors three tiers of federal-state programs. The first tier would offer short-term help (such as car repairs or rental assistance) to those folks who need just a bit of aid to find or hold jobs. The second tier would provide job training and ongoing support for low-wage workers. The third tier would consist of intensive, behaviorally tailored service programs offering closely supervised assistance to adults who have trouble holding jobs and raising children on their own.

Alas, Blank's three-tiered welfare-reform scheme is pure pie in the sky at this point. Although she tries to retool her proposals as recommendations for state-level officials, her calls for greater spending on the poor, more-intensive social services, and open-ended assistance are completely out of sync with fiscal and political realities.

Here is the glaring weakness of It Takes a Nation: a failure of political analysis and imagination. From this book it is hard to tell why welfare became such a hot potato after the 1960s. Blank presents AFDC as suffering from weaknesses of "policy design" that could have been corrected if only Americans had avoided political "rhetoric" and paid adequate attention to sound policy research. We learn little about who was purveying the rhetoric, and why it resonated so broadly. Because Blank fails to analyze what went wrong politically for welfare in the past, she cannot project feasible strategies for the future.

AFDC was descended from "mothers' pensions," state laws enacted early in the century at the urging of organized American women who wanted to honor and support stay-at-home motherhood, even among the poor. Quaint as their thinking now seems, the original supporters of welfare argued that the work of mothering was like soldiering, because mothers risked their lives in childbirth and served the nation by raising good citizens. Under the 1935 Social Security Act the federal government turned mothers' pensions into nationally subsidized Aid to Dependent Children (later relabeled Aid to Families with Dependent Children). Like mothers' pensions, ADC/AFDC originally helped mostly white widowed mothers.

The bitter politicization of welfare after the mid-1960s is the crucial backdrop to what finally happened in the summer of 1996. AFDC's clientele changed to some extent when African-Americans migrated to cities following the Second World War, and after judicial rulings made it easier for poor blacks and divorced or never-married mothers to claim public aid. Following the War on Poverty and the political upheavals of the 1960s, conservatives were able to play on popular resentment of expanded welfare programs. As many Americans faced tougher economic circumstances, and as more and more women entered the wage-labor force, welfare programs that narrowly targeted some very poor mothers (stereotyped as mostly black) could easily be portrayed as unfair. Republicans exploited this theme for all it was worth, and many Americans responded. It hardly mattered that all along most welfare mothers have had to work part-time off the books to survive -- a fact well documented in an important new book, , by Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein. The point is both cultural and political: a welfare program originally conceived as "mothers' pensions" lost its legitimacy in an era of racial conflict, declining wages, and widespread female entry into the wage-labor market.

Even as welfare became a political football, the United States developed another, much more successful antipoverty program: Social Security. Of course, Americans do not think of Social Security as a poverty program (and Blank doesn't treat it as one either). Americans applaud Social Security for its nearly universal coverage and its lack of stigmatizing means tests. They understand Social Security benefits as a socially legitimate return for a lifetime of contributions through work and payroll taxes. Regardless of how Social Security is thought of, since the 1970s it has in fact pulled many more Americans above the poverty line than all other social programs combined. Social Security has also remained popular with ordinary citizens, even amid federal budgetary cutbacks and resistance to other kinds of taxation.

As It Takes a Nation skillfully documents, many American workers today are finding it difficult to earn wages and benefits adequate to sustain a family. This problem transcends race and includes both single- and dual-parent families. So why not take the opportunity that the demise of AFDC now thrusts upon us? Why not start talking about broad new ways -- a widening of the idea of social security -- to help the majority of American working parents, with extra help for the poorest offered in the context of such an overall effort? This approach may not seem realistic for 1997 and 1998, but it could gain popularity and plausibility over five to ten years -- about the same amount of time that it took conservative Republicans to capture Congress from the Democrats and bring their crusade against AFDC to fruition.

Blank dismisses broad social programs as politically unfeasible, even though her own elaborate prescriptions are equally so. Over the past several decades liberal antipoverty warriors have suffered from a crimped sense of political realism. While constantly retailoring narrow policy prescriptions to the perceived mood of the moment in Washington, D.C., they plug away at amassing facts, doing complex statistical analyses, and writing books and articles that avoid political stances and "rhetorical" appeals to popular sentiment. By now we know that this approach doesn't work. But here is Rebecca Blank, trying it one more time. Although she deftly synthesizes decades of academic research, her book will, predictably, never achieve even a fraction of the political influence attained by Charles Murray's factually sloppy 1984 manifesto, , which became the veritable bible of the Reaganite assault on welfare. In politics, Murray and his fellow conservatives know, the use of emotional images and moral appeals to a majority matter much more than accurate statistical tables.

Blank and other poverty researchers are having a hard time weaning themselves from the old welfare programs. They still want to go back and tinker with the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996. But the American people will not accept elaborate benefits or services restricted to some very poor parents in an era when so many working families are struggling with low wages, dwindling or absent health benefits, and inadequate child-care arrangements. Compassionate policies toward the poor await the wider solidarity of a new politics of social and economic security -- the ground of the next liberalism.

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1997; The next Liberalism; Volume 279, No. 4; pages 118-120.