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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

August 1971

The Best of Intentions, the Worst of Results

by Irving Kristol

IN 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville submitted an Essay on Pauperism to the Royal Academic Society of Cherbourg. The Essay addressed itself to a striking contemporary paradox: why, in the most "opulent" (we would say, more timidly, "affluent") nation in the world -- that is, England -- was there such an extraordinary problem of "pauperism" (what we would now call "welfare": poor people on poor relief)? In France and Spain and Portugal, he pointed out, the people were all much poorer than in England; and the average Spaniard was poor even in comparison with the English pauper on poor relief. But in none of these poorer countries was there a "pauper problem" of the kind that agitated English society and English politics. How could one account for that "apparently inexplicable" phenomenon?


Tocqueville's answer was twofold. First, urbanization and industrialization made the poor more dependent on public charity for a minimum level of subsistence. In an agrarian economy, it was only in rare periods of famine that the poorest rural laborer could not get enough to eat -- "enough" meaning here simply a diet that would avert starvation. In contrast, the poor in a modern city have no such normal, minimum guarantee; they are therefore in frequent need of public assistance, if they are to keep body and soul together.

Return to Flashback: Welfare Second, in an "opulent" society the idea of poverty itself undergoes a continual redefinition. The poor experience not only the need for a guaranteed minimum; they also suffer from what a modern sociologist would call "relative deprivation." Tocqueville puts the matter this way:

Among civilized peoples, the lack of a multitude of things causes poverty. . . . In a country where the majority is ill-clothed, ill-housed, ill-fed, who thinks of giving clean clothes, healthy food, comfortable quarters to the poor? The majority of the English, having all these things, regard their absence as a frightful misfortune: society believes itself bound to come to the aid of those who lack them. In England, the average standard of living a man can hope for in the course of his life is higher than in any other country of the world. This greatly facilitates the extension of pauperism in that kingdom. [* See endnote]

But Tocqueville did not stop with this explanation -- a persuasive and not particularly controversial explanation -- of why wealthy nations have so many "paupers." He went on to assert that public assistance and "pauperdom" existed in a symbiotic relationship, and he predicted that each would nourish the other, that both would inexorably grow. Behind this remarkable prediction was a view of human nature. "There are," he wrote, "two incentives to work: the need to live and the desire to improve the conditions of life. Experience has proven that the majority of men can be sufficiently motivated to work only by the first of these incentives. The second is only effective with a small minority. . . . A law which gives all the poor a right to public aid, whatever the origin of their poverty, weakens or destroys the first stimulant and leaves only the second intact."

At this point, we are bound to draw up short and take our leave of Tocqueville. Such gloomy conclusions, derived from a less than benign view of human nature, do not recommend themselves either to the twentieth-century political imagination or to the American political temperament. We do not like to think that our instincts of social compassion might have dismal consequences -- not accidentally but inexorably. We simply cannot believe that the universe is so constituted. We much prefer, if a choice has to be made, to have a good opinion of mankind and a poor opinion of our socioeconomic system. We shall, for instance, be more sympathetic, if not to the specific argument, then at least to the general approach of Regulating the Poor: The Function of Public Welfare by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward recently published by Pantheon.


Professors Piven and Cloward, both leading "activists" in the Welfare Rights Movement, have written a valuable book -- but, alas, a confusing one. The confusion results from the two purposes they have in mind.

The first purpose, which they achieve in an excellent and even masterly way, is to answer the same question that perplexed Tocqueville: why has there been such a fantastic "welfare explosion" in the United States? Specifically, why has there been such an extraordinary growth in our welfare population after 1964 -- after, that is, unemployment began to move down toward the unprecedented (in peacetime, anyway) low level of 3.5 percent? Between 1964 and 1968, we had general prosperity of a kind not known since World War II.

This prosperity was not, of course, shared equally by rich and poor, white and black: but all did demonstrably and substantially share in it. Nevertheless, it was precisely during those years that the "welfare explosion" took place.

I do not think it is sufficiently appreciated by the public at large just how baffling this event was to our scholars and our policy-makers in Washington. For half a decade, our best minds puzzled over the statistics, held innumerable conferences to discuss them, and got nowhere. The only serious effort at explanation was made by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his famous and brilliant memorandum on the Negro family, in 1965. He called attention to the fact that most of the new welfare recipients were in the Aid to Dependent Children category, that a growing proportion of families in this category were black and fatherless, and that the disorganization of the Negro family seemed to have gathered a sociological momentum of its own -- a momentum impervious to the effects of improving economic circumstances. Why this was happening to the Negro family, however, Mr. Moynihan could not convincingly explain. This permitted a great many liberal-minded scholars to spend all of their energies attacking him rather than the problem.

But, eventually, any social phenomenon yields up its mystery. Or, to put it another way: eventually, all social observers, no matter how blurred their vision may be by tacit ideological presuppositions, come to see the obvious. We now know what caused the "welfare explosion." I would also say -- though this topic is still exceedingly controversial -- that we are coming to realize what has been causing the disorganization of the Negro family.

All the facts are lucidly and authoritatively presented by Professors Piven and Cloward. Unfortunately they have felt compelled to wrap their findings in a thin, transparently false general theory of welfare in a capitalist society.

This general theory is so simpleminded, so crude in a quasi-Marxist way, that one is embarrassed to summarize it. I will therefore let the authors state it for themselves:

. . . Relief arrangements [under capitalism] are not shaped by the impulse to charity . . . [they are created and sustained to help deal with the malfunctions inherent in market economies.

Relief arrangements are usually initiated or expanded in response to the political disorders that sometimes follow from the sharp economic downturns or dislocations that periodically beset market systems. The purpose of relief-giving at such times is not to ease hunger and want but to deal with civil disorder among the unemployed. Once stability is restored, however, the relief system is not ordinarily eliminated. Instead, it is reorganized to buttress the normal incentives of the labor market. This is done in two ways. The main way is by cutting the "able-bodied" off the rolls whether or not there are jobs, and whether or not the wages offered are sufficient for survival. Second, some of those who cannot work or who are not needed in the labor market are allowed to continue on the relief rolls, but they are treated so barbarously as to make of them a class of pariahs whose degradation breeds a fear and loathing of pauperism among the laboring classes.

Now, the objections to this theory on historical, sociological, and economic grounds -- are too numerous to mention. But one objection ought to be definitive: it does not explain what Piven-Cloward elsewhere in the book explain so well -- that is, the "welfare explosion" of the 1960s. True, the "welfare explosion" coincided with rioting in the black slums. But according to the general theory, the poor in the black slums should not have been rioting at all, since the economy was booming and black unemployment was at an all-time low: and if they did riot, it should have been because they were being pushed off welfare into low-paying jobs. In fact, they were rioting while they were going on welfare in ever increasing numbers -- and while welfare payments were being increased, not while they were being cut back.

The true explanation of the "welfare explosion" is available to any reader of Regulating the Poor who will ignore the authors' general theory. (This is easily done: once they have stated the theory, they happily forget all about it when discussing the 1960s.) This "explosion" was created -- in part intentionally, in larger part unwittingly -- by public officials and public employees who were executing public policies as part of a "War on Poverty." And these policies had been advocated and enacted by many of the same people who were subsequently so bewildered by the "welfare explosion." Not surprisingly it took them a while to realize that the problem they were trying to solve was the problem they were creating.

Here, as related in Piven-Cloward's book, are the reasons behind the "welfare explosion" of the 1960s:

1. The number of poor people who are eligible for welfare will increase as one elevates the official definitions of "poverty" and "need." The War on Poverty elevated these official definitions; therefore, an increase in the number of "eligibles" automatically followed.

2. The number of eligible poor who actually apply for welfare will increase as welfare benefits go up -- as they did throughout the 1960s. When welfare payments (and associated benefits, such as Medicaid and food stamps) compete with low wages, many poor people will rationally prefer welfare. In New York City today, as in many other large cities, welfare benefits not only compete with low wages; they outstrip them.

3. The reluctance of people actually eligible for welfare to apply for it -- a reluctance based on pride or ignorance or fear -- will diminish if an organized campaign is instituted to "sign them up." Such a campaign was successfully launched in the 1960s by (a) various community organizations sponsored and financed by the Office of Economic Opportunity, (b) the Welfare Rights Movement, and (c) the social work profession, which was now populated by college graduates who thought it their moral duty to help people get on welfare -- instead of, as used to be the case, helping them get off welfare. In addition, the courts cooperated by striking down various legal obstacles (for example, residence requirements).

In summary, one can say that the "welfare explosion'' was the work, not of "capitalism" or of any other "ism," but of men and women like Miss Piven and Mr. Cloward -- in the Welfare Rights Movement, the social work profession, the office of Economic Opportunity, and so on. It would be nice to think that the "general theory" in Regulating the Poor was devised mainly out of an excess of modesty.


It should be emphasized that Piven-Cloward think the "welfare explosion" is a good thing. They believe more people should be on welfare and that these people should get far more generous benefits than now prevail. One would expect, therefore, that this book would have a triumphant tone to it. Yet it does not. Indeed, it ends rather abruptly, in a minor key.

The reason, one suspects, is that even Piven-Cloward must be less than certain about what they have accomplished. Somehow, the fact that more poor people are on welfare, receiving more generous payments, does not seem to have made this country a nicer place to live -- not even for the poor on welfare, whose condition seems not noticeably better than when they were poor and off welfare. Something appears to have gone wrong: a liberal and compassionate social policy has bred all sorts of unanticipated and perverse consequences.

One such perverse consequence, and surely the most important, is the disorganization and demoralization of the Negro family. It used to be thought that a generous welfare program, liberally administered, would help poor families stick together. We now find that as many poor black families are breaking up after they get on welfare as before they got on; and that, in general, the prospect of welfare does nothing to hold a poor family together. Mr. Moynihan was percipient in emphasizing, back in 1965, that there was a connection between family disorganization and the influx of poor black female-headed families to welfare. What we can now see is that the existence of a liberal welfare program might itself have been responsible, to a significant extent, for this family disorganization.


One must emphasize here that the question of race or ethnicity is of secondary importance. It is true that the Negro family has experienced historical vicissitudes that make it a relatively vulnerable institution. But it is also probable -- I would go so far as to say certain -- that if the Irish immigrants in nineteenth-century America had had something comparable to our present welfare system, there would have been a "welfare explosion" then, and a sharp increase in Irish family disorganization, too. The family is, in our society, a vital economic institution. Welfare robs it of its economic function. Above all, welfare robs the head of the household of his economic function, and tends to make of him a "superfluous man." Welfare, it must be remembered, competes with his (usually low) earning ability; and the more generous the welfare program, the worse he makes out in this competition.

Is it surprising, then, that -- unmanned and demoralized -- he removes himself from family responsibilities that no longer rest on his shoulders? That he drifts out of his home -- or is even pushed out of his home -- into the male street-corner society of the slum? One wonders how many white middle-class families would survive if mother and children were guaranteed the father's income (or more) without the father's presence? And how many white middle-class fathers would, under these circumstances, persist at their not-always-interesting jobs?

To raise such questions is to point to the fundamental problems of our welfare system, a vicious circle in which the best of intentions merge into the worst of results. It is not easy to imagine just how we might break out of this vicious circle. One might suggest, however, that we begin by going back and reading Tocqueville more respectfully. We may not find the truth in him; but the exercise may help liberate us from our own twentieth-century illusions.

[*Endnote: Tocqueville and Beaumont on Social Reform, edited by Seymour Drescher, Harper Torch-books].

Return to Flashback: Welfare

Copyright © 1971 by Irving Kristol. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August, 1971; The Best of Intentions, the Worst of Results.

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