The Welfare Debate: Getting Past the Bumper Stickers

By Edelman, Peter B. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview
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The Welfare Debate: Getting Past the Bumper Stickers

Edelman, Peter B., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

Welfare reform has been the recurrent subject of heated debate in the United States, culminating in far-reaching legislation in 1996.(1) Taking the measure of that legislation requires attention both to the broader context of which welfare policy is a part and to the merits of the 1996 law itself.


Welfare policy, cash assistance for families with children, should not be considered in isolation. It is certainly true that bad welfare policy hurts people, and good welfare policy helps. But it is wrong to discuss it, or legislate about it, in a vacuum. Unfortunately, that is what occurred in 1996, and it is occurring again as we debate the reauthorization of the 1996 law.

Viewing welfare in a vacuum errs in two ways. First, appropriate action to reduce the number of people in or near poverty (in ways that would also reduce welfare dependency) has to go well beyond welfare policy. Undue focus on welfare to the exclusion of other relevant matters draws attention away from the larger agenda. Without attention to a broader policy agenda, measures directed at reducing the size of the welfare rolls tend to have more punitive side effects, especially when jobs are scarce. More jobs, better jobs, increased income from work, broader health coverage, additional child care assistance, and improved education for children are only some of the policies that would reduce both poverty and welfare, and also result in people being better off than they were when on welfare.

Second, it is important to ask why so much poverty exists in this very wealthy nation. Conservative critics of welfare focus heavily on individual behavior and reject or ignore broader issues of economic and societal structure. Individual behavior should be considered, but not to the exclusion of these other matters.

Almost no one agues for a pure income guarantee approach to poverty policy. (2) So perhaps there is no need for me to argue that poverty policy must include elements other than cash assistance. I have long argued for a welfare policy based on the centrality of work, with appropriate support structures to assist people in getting and keeping the best possible jobs, and to be responsible parents at the same time. (3) Everyone who has children faces this set of issues, but only some people are fortunate enough to be able to afford their own support systems.

If cash by itself is a nonstarter, what is the right combination of policies? I offer a basic premise: welfare should be a residual policy. For some people, especially children, welfare is in essential safety net. Nevertheless, policies should endeavor to keep the number of people on welfare at In absolute minimum. It should be reserved for when our other policies rail, or when it is not appropriate to expect a parent or parents, in practice often a single mother, to work outside the home. Welfare is essential in recessions, in places where there are no jobs, in circumstances where women have special caregiving responsibilities, in cases where there is functional disability, and in a manner that supplements unemployment insurance.

However, I would like to note my basic policy assumption that nearly every parent can do something useful outside her home for some period of time each week. The question that divides me from others who agree with this statement is how to accomplish this. The details are critical. Bumper stickers, slogans, and flat ideological positions do not provide the answer.

Welfare policy should consider whether it genuinely promotes work and protects children. As to the former, are we helping people to get and keep jobs and move up the job ladder? As to the latter, are we meeting children's needs and making careful decisions about how much work to require from their parents as a condition of receiving cash assistance?

If we want to promote work, a crucial mix of policies more costly than current welfare legislation is needed:

* education and training for the parents involved;

* adequate child care, the lack of which forces many mothers back onto the welfare rolls;

* and above all, universal health coverage, the lack of which remains a disincentive for many to leave welfare, where they have Medicaid coverage.

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The Welfare Debate: Getting Past the Bumper Stickers


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