Social Unrest: Cause and Effect

Article excerpt

At one point in "The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck is at pains to distinguish between cause and effect. In teasing them apart, he reminds us of our tendency to strike out at the immediate, visible signs of the problem: big government; tax hikes; social unrest; new programs; "not knowing these things are results, not causes. Results, not causes; results, not causes."

Steinbeck, in repeating that phrase, hammers it home to a society geared up to blame the Okies for being tractored out of their farms and driven on the road. If it was hard to discern the direction of results and causes back in the Great Depression, in the midst of wrenching social and economic problems, then what do we make of it today - as politicians, the media and the public consider the case of Americans on welfare?

In the ever-narrowing political spectrum of the 1990s, whether you are left-of-center or right-of-center, you are more than likely to see welfare itself as the cause of menacing social problems, such as dependency, drugs, crime, out-of-wedlock births and moral decay. Seen in this light, the response is rather obvious: Root out the cause, the failed system of federal aid to the poor.

The current welfare restructuring agreement would make deep cuts in benefits - $80 billion over five years. This is separate from a $170 billion cut in Medicaid, the health program for the poor, over seven years. In addition, responsibility would be shifted to the states to set eligibility criteria and benefit levels for welfare recipients. Debate continues on establishing family caps and withdrawing benefits to counter illegitimacy, especially among teens.

No doubt, attribution of cause translates into clear public policy. Whereas the poor, particularly women and children, are blamed for their entrenched poverty and pathology, and the working poor are denied $32 billion in earned income tax benefits, middle-income families and investors would be rewarded with tax cuts totaling $245 billion.

What then are the causes for this tangled web? Right where Steinbeck put them: They "lie deep and simple - the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; a hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times."

To separate results from causes, we must see the forest through the trees: Welfare recipients constitute a submerged class of people, a social product deeply alienated from a system that increasingly rewards the top 20 percent of American households. …