The Politics of Ignorance: Welfare Reform Is Ambitious Social Engineering

Article excerpt

The raging debate over "Welfare Reform," Now coming to a climax, is a creature of many other agendas. On the one hand, Republicans want to cut programs for the poor to balance the budget. On the other, liberal advocates for the poor are threatened by reform." Suppose it actually succeeds - that is, promotes work and family cohesion. Then these advocates, who have spent their lives trying to help the poor by expanding government benefits, would see the worth of all their beliefs and strivings thrown into question.

I don't want to suggest that all of the arguments in this debate are insincere or without merit. But the rhetorical extremes - pitting claims that reform will end the "culture of dependence" against cries that it will "throw children into the streets" - reflect the self-interest of the debaters and ignore the difficulty of the task. What we call welfare reform is really the most ambitious sort of social engineering: it presumes government can alter how people behave.

Welfare itself illustrates how flimsy this power is. Recall that in 1960 only 5 percent of births were out-of-wedlock (2 percent among whites, 22 percent among blacks). By 1993 that figure was 31 percent (24 percent among whites, 69 percent among blacks). Welfare didn't singlehandedly cause this explosion, and among the other causes (earlier sexual activity, later marriage and more economic independence for women), it is probably low on the list.

Still, welfare may have contributed by enabling poor mothers to survive alone and, thereby, encouraging fathers to abandon their children. Nor is it inconceivable that tougher welfare could help reverse these disastrous trends, especially if it coincides with a general re-evaluation of the importance of families. When New Jersey prohibited extra payments to mothers who had another child, birthrates among welfare mothers dropped by more than 10 percent. Maybe that was a coincidence, and maybe it wasn't.

Certainly, the welfare bill now being completed by Congress is tougher. It would end automatic federal payments to poor single mothers. Instead, states would receive a fixed "block grant" with which to operate programs. The states could set benefits and eligibility within broad mandates from Washington.

Lifetime eligibility: Most welfare recipients couldn't receive more than five years of cash benefits, though states could set shorter limits. States could exempt 15 percent of their caseload - people deemed dependent - from this requirement. Now almost half of recipients at any one time have been on welfare five years.

Unwed teenage mothers: To receive benefits, they would have to live with parents or other approved adults. They would also have to attend school. States could go further and deny benefits entirely to unwed mothers under 18.

Family `caps': States could decide whether or not to increase benefits for a mother who had a child while on welfare.

Child support: By 1998, states would have to have a system to check newly hired workers to see if they were making child-support payments. If not, employers would be ordered to impose payroll deductions. States would also have to empower themselves to strip delinquent fathers of drivers' or professional licenses. …