REPUBLICANS ON CAPITOL HILL AND MANY democrats, too are marching toward a tough new vision of social welfare in which the poor have an obligation to society. Personal responsibility is the catchword, embodied in an array of proposals to discourage behavior like out-of-wedlock births, and to cure dependency by limiting help. Compassion has been redefined to mean liberation from the welfare system.
At times it seems a politician has nothing to lose by patronizing or even insulting those who receive Government aid. The Republicans' welfare overhaul is stalled in the Senate at the moment in large part because conservatives think it does not go far enough.
There probably never was a time when poor people were a truly powerful constituency on Capitol Hill. But there were times, notably in the 1930s and 1960s, when they had powerful champions. And rarely have the programs that served them programs that for decades seemed part of the architecture of the American system, like food stamps and Medicaid and Aid to Families with Dependent Children seemed less sacred than they do now.
The reigning ethos is what Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan calls "the great rhetorical inversion" of the Republican Party: that the current welfare system is such a failure, so faulty and so perverse in the behavior it encourages and discourages, that almost anything would be better. To cut or restructure it, by this line of reasoning, helps rather than hurts poor people. The Republicans argue, in short, that they are not blaming the victim; they are blaming the system.
"Year after year, generation after generation, we have enslaved these people," Representative William F. Goodling,-Republican of Pennsylvania, declared on the floor of the House earlier this year. "Unless we make a change, they will never have an opportunity to get part of that American dream."
In his book To Renew America, Speaker Newt Gingrich rails against "a welfare state" that "breaks up families, minimizes work incentives, blocks people from saving and acquiring property, and overshadows dreams of a promised future with a present despair born of poverty, violence and hopelessness." In contrast to the heavy hand of government, Mr. Gingrich writes approvingly of an earlier model of charity.
Some Democrats scoff at the Gingrichian inversion even as they recognize its power. "Poverty isn't the problem, A.F.D.C. is the problem," said Andrew Cuomo, assistant secretary for community planning and development at Housing and Urban Development (an agency that many Republicans want to abolish). "It's not starvation, it's food stamps. It's not homelessness, it's public housing. That's how they define the problem."
But not many politicians want to defend the current system, mired as it is in chronic dependency and the breakdown of the family. This is the genius of the Gingrich approach to welfare: a choice between liberating change with the Republicans and suffering with the status quo under the Democrats.
THESE IDEAS BEGAN BUBBLING A DECADE AGO; THE conservative Charles Murray, in his book Losing Ground, argued that welfare and other anti-poverty programs caused more problems than they solved. Many liberals also began to rethink the welfare system, and by 1992 it was the Democratic
Presidential candidate who promised to "end welfare as we know it."
Still, the argument that anything is better than the current system meets some important tactical needs for the Republican Party. Throughout its heyday in the 1980s, the party still had to worry about appearing hardhearted. As President, George Bush promised "kinder, gentler" policies.
But the current debate reflects more than tactical considerations. To begin with, Congressional power follows people, and more and more of them are in the suburbs; the urban underclass, which is less likely to vote anyway, can seem distant and alien to those constituents and the representatives they send to Congress. …