Working on Welfare

How to reform the system

Bill Clinton's promise to reform welfare dramatically was among his most popular campaign pledges, the one that let him outflank George Bush on the right and attract swing voters in swing states. But as president, Clinton has let that pledge slide in favor of pushing his health-care program. After first dropping plans to include a major push for welfare reform in his State of the Union address, however, he yielded to pro-reform pressures, notably from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). He now promises to submit a welfare reform bill this year, though it, too, will take a back seat to health care.

To explore prospects and plans for reform, REASON gathered three of the issue's most incisive analysts for a two-hour discussion in late December. The moderator was REASON Editor Virginia Postrel. Our guests included:

* Charles D. Hobbs, a public-policy consultant and author who served as President Ronald Reagan's chief adviser on public assistance and other federal domestic programs from 1984 to 1989. He is now working primarily on state-level reform efforts.

* Mickey Kaus, a senior editor of The New Republic and author of The End of Equality. He has been a leading Democratic voice for replacing welfare with a program of public-service jobs.

* Charles Murray, author of Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980. Last fall, Murray found himself acclaimed in the international media, courted by congressional leaders, and quoted favorably by the president and vice president when he published an article in The Wall Street Journal warning that illegitimacy rates among white Americans have reached the level that triggered Moynihan's prescient warning in the 1960s about the deterioration of the black family.

Virginia Postrel: President Clinton's campaign pledge to "end welfare as we know it" appears to enjoy broad support. Nobody has much good to say about the current welfare system. How did we get to this situation, and what do you see as the primary problem of the system as it exists today?

Chuck Hobbs: We would all probably agree that welfare is a poison and work is the antidote. The elements of that poison are a poison that discourages work; a poison that discourages families from forming and staying together; and, maybe most importantly, a poison that separates people so that they lose a sense of community, and with that sense of community, the behavior patterns that are expected when you live within a community of neighbors.

Mickey Kaus: Look at what Roosevelt did in the winter of 1934 and '35. He said, "The dole is a narcotic. It saps the vitality of our people." This was in the middle of a depression. There were millions of people on cash relief. Roosevelt ended the cash relief and replaced it with a guaranteed job. He made one mistake. He kept the categorical aid program for women in homes where the breadwinner was dead, disabled, or absent. And from that one word absent sprang our current welfare problem.

Charles Murray: If tomorrow you had the world's most successful work program for women on welfare, I don't think you would change the nature of the problem in the inner cities. You'd have working welfare mothers. You would still have a very high proportion of children growing up without fathers. I guess I'm a disciple of George Gilder, in many respects. In 1973, with Sexual Suicide, he set out, at a time when it was extremely unpopular, a whole set of propositions about the role that marriage plays in socializing men and also socializing the next generation of children. If you have very high rates of illegitimacy--which is the worst form of single parenthood--that brings social chaos. If you don't fix that, you don't fix the underclass.

Kaus: We really do have a disagreement. I think if you could change the non-working single-parent underclass into a working single-parent class--a working matriarchy--you would have gone a long way to solving the problem of the underclass. It makes a big difference if people go to work or if they don't go to work. Even male children growing up in a working household will tend to be more disciplined. They know that mommy is going out the door at a certain hour, and they really have to get up and dress by that hour. Alarm clocks have to be set. Dolores Norton at the University of Chicago has done some research that seems to suggest that the greatest factor in how well kids do at school is whether they come from a working household or a non- working household. In a welfare household, there is no rhythm, no discipline to the day. The day just sort of floats by. People watch soap operas. Nobody has to be anywhere at any particular time. And as a result, the socialization of kids is very different. The second point I'd make is that if you had a working matriarchy, the natural economic incentives to form two-parent families would reassert themselves. It's very hard to be a working single mother. If that's the only fate open to you--if the welfare avenue is closed--all the incentives are to find some man. And if you find the man, marry him, and go to work, you are not going to be poor, by and large, in this society.

Murray: Our disagreement is more about ideology than results. Because I think that if Mickey Kaus's work program were implemented precisely as he says it should be implemented--

Postrel: Maybe you should briefly say what that program is.

Murray: The welfare system goes away, a job is out there, the woman gets the addresses and job sites. If she shows up and works, she gets paid; if she doesn't show up, she doesn't get paid.

Kaus: There is also day care available.

Murray: So, suppose that was done precisely the way we've just stated it. Then I think that Mickey is right, that you would have a whole bunch more two-parent families forming.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

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