Magazine article Insight on the News

Shrinking 'One Size Fits All' Public Policy

Magazine article Insight on the News

Shrinking 'One Size Fits All' Public Policy

Article excerpt

Outside the Beltway, people aren't very excited about Washington's upcoming welfare reform. They've watched too many generations of social engineers try to fix welfare only to produce a bigger, more exasperating tangle.

A nice example of this pattern of failure, at least at the state level, is Virginia's 1994 law getting tough with "deadbeat dads" who fail to pay state-ordered child support. Its plan was to punish them by suspending their state professional licenses. It sounded simple, efficient and fair. The only problem was that no one reckoned on the law of unintended consequences. When the commonwealth cracked down on dead-beat dads in 1995, guess who was the first parent to have a career license suspended? A hard-luck mom!

Amber Bachand, from Front Royal, Va., is a nursing assistant who had given custody of her 13-year-old son to his grandparents. The grandparents collected state assistance to care for the boy and the state tried to recoup the money by going after the daughter. But Amber was broke and couldn't pay the $3,899 assessment. By taking away her nurses'-assistant license, the state made it harder for her to find work. In connection with the case, a judge also ordered her arrested and jailed; this caused Amber to go into hiding, abandoning contact with her son and breaking up the family.

"It's real hard on [her son] Paul" said the grandmother. Washington Post reporter Peter Baker found that the grandmother was distraught to learn that her decision to take welfare benefits on behalf of her grandson would result in a prosecution against her daughter. "I didn't realize what all it involved:' she said, "or I would never have gone and asked for assistance."

Why does government keep stumbling into these painful blunders? It's a good question to ask as the nation heads down the road of welfare reform. Are Americans just going th be rolled by the law of unintended consequences again?

Let's see what's behind this law. When one thinks about social policy, about rules and regulations that affect human beings, one necessarily must conjure up an image of the person who will be affected by the law. With child support, for example, one create a picture of the parent who owes the money. …

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