Welfare Reform: Shift and Shaft

By Dionne, E. J. | Nation's Cities Weekly, February 3, 1997 | Go to article overview

Welfare Reform: Shift and Shaft


Dionne, E. J., Nation's Cities Weekly


Here's news we're supposed to be happy about: Now that the federal government has shucked off responsibility for th poor to the states, state governments3 are shucking off responsibility to counties and cities.

Ah, the joys of "devolution." President Clinton went out of his way to extol them at his news conference last Tuesday by referring to a recent Washington Post story about states "trying to push this down to the community level." His hopeful analysis: "That's not bad. That's good, as long as they give the communities the means they need." Right. The welfare bill the president signed last year reduced federal responsibilities, but the states are supposed to do the right thing.

So much of the welfare reform rhetoric is appealing. Of course the current welfare system has failed. Yes. welfare should be designed as a way of moving people from dependency to work. States and locaties should be encouraged to find solutions that best fit their own circumstances. Voluntary institutions, especially the churches, are better placed than government to give helpful guidance, personal and moral, to people in trouble.

These assertions, all true, evade one problem: They cost money that is not there.

That's why the welfare debate is "Orwellian," as in George Orwell's famous assertions about words being used to mean things utterly opposite from what they really mean. Arguments that sound sympathetic to the poor are used to justify giving them less help.

As a country, we are not nearly as generous as we like to think. We give a fair amount to charity, but many of our "charities" are for us: the colleges and universities we went to, the theaters and museums we visits, the public television and radio stations we enjoy, the churches we go to, the hospitals that have served us.

We should contribute to such endeavors. But little of that money gets to the poor. The United Way has given donors broad leeways to designate their favorite charities. In the District of Columbia at least, that has meant less money to the organizations that serve the inner city poor. …

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