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Welfare: Where Do We Go From Here?

Round Two -- Concluding Remarks
Posted March 25, 1997


In these closing remarks, I address the question posed to me by David Whitman and clarify my views regarding welfare reform.

I oppose the recent welfare-reform bill. I do not, however, oppose meaningful welfare reform, including a number of the reforms that have taken place in Wisconsin. What I have tried to suggest is that there is too much polarization in this debate. The welfare system is not the cause of all or even most of the problems of the poor in general or the inner-city poor in particular.

I endorse the view that welfare mothers should take responsibility for themselves to the greatest extent possible, and I have never meant to imply that most welfare recipients, in David Whitman's words, "are essentially pawns buffeted about by structural changes in the job market." My earlier remarks in this forum emphasized the importance of these structural changes to the labor-market problems of welfare recipients and the working poor. They were a response to the views of Mr. Turner and Mr. Rector, who seem to deny that these changes have affected less-skilled workers and instead think that anyone who wants to work can find steady employment.

In any system that tries to deal with a complex social problem and a diverse population there will be errors both of commission and of omission. The pre-1996 welfare system undoubtedly created some "false positives" -- that is, provided assistance to some recipients who could have made it on their own. Some of these false positives might have been lazy and not looked for a job; others might have even been offered jobs and turned them down because the wages were low or because they did not provide health insurance. Taxpayers have the right to expect that welfare recipients who are offered jobs will accept them. But I would add that if taxpayers expect a mother to leave welfare for a low-wage job, they should provide her with subsidized access to child care and health care.

My objection to the new law results primarily from my concern that the number of false positives under the old system was much smaller than the number of false negatives will be under the new system. The new reform deals with the false positives by cutting people off who will not search for work or cooperate with the welfare office. But the labor-market experiences in recent years of millions of low-skilled workers who do not receive welfare suggest that there will be many false negatives -- that is, mothers who will be denied cash assistance even though they are willing to work, simply because they cannot find an employer to hire them. The number of false negatives will rise during recessions when states are strapped for funds and will rise even in good economic times as employers continue to escalate their demands for a skilled workforce.

The solution is not to continue to write recipients welfare checks or to maintain the pre-1996 status quo. I support a time-limited welfare system. I would endorse Wisconsin's program of community-service jobs if the state would make them available to anyone who can demonstrate that they have exhausted all other job options.

Individual choices certainly play a role in the circumstances in which some individuals find themselves. The difficult public-policy issue is the extent to which children should suffer because of the choices previously made by their parents. Consider the hypothetical case of a young woman who dropped out of school at sixteen, had a baby at seventeen, and was nineteen when the new welfare law went into effect. I certainly do not think that she should stay on welfare for a long period of time without having to take some responsibility for her child, but I also don't think she should be kicked off welfare if she is willing to work but can't find a job. The problem is that most employers will prefer to hire many other applicants before hiring her because they can find better-skilled and more-experienced workers.

It is very difficult to judge the extent of people's responsibility for their plight. In the above example, we don't know if the young woman's school failure resulted from her lack of ability, her lack of motivation, or her living in an impoverished area with inferior public schools. Certainly, her job prospects would be much better today if she had "chosen" to graduate high school and to have delayed childbearing. And certainly we need a welfare system that gives her an incentive to look for work and an incentive to collect child support from the father of her child. But we also need other public policies to help poor children avoid school failure and early childbearing. Welfare is not the primary cause of our myriad social problems. To cut off a child because its mother can't find a job is to have a system of "no strikes and you're out." America has always been a country of second chances, and there is no reason welfare policy cannot be more supportive of the truly needy than the new law allows.

During the past decade many states developed welfare-to-work programs to deal with recipients who were not doing enough on their own to leave welfare. I have no problem with most of those state programs. My concern is that the new law, by eliminating all entitlements, allows states to withdraw any cash assistance from many poor mothers, even if they are trying their best to take responsibility for themselves and their children.

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.
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