Brief Review


Out of the Poverty Trap: A Conservative Strategy for Welfare Reform, by Stuart Butler and Anna Kondratas, New York: Free Press, 243 pages, $17.95.

Most of the ideas and themes presented in Out of the Poverty Trap should be familiar to REASON's readers. Stuart Butler, who directs domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, is best known as the man who brought enterprise zones and privatization to prominence among policymakers. Anna Kondratas did excellent work for Heritage on welfare issues before joining the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Out of the Poverty Trap combines Butler's privatization proposals with the self-help theories advanced by Robert Woodson and Cicero Wilson. Most of the authors' proposals are neither new nor terribly radical. Their calls for transferring power from federal bureaucrats to the poor, establishing "welfare opportunity zones" (areas where different forms of welfare deregulation can be tested), and strengthening entrepreneurship among the poor are all ideas that market-oriented people will welcome. Most of the book is a sensible, thoughtful critique of the welfare state.

Unfortunately, the authors take a defensive attitude toward welfare. The book seems to address liberals looking for a reasonable alternative to the failed programs of today. But in their efforts to please the left, the authors capitulate on many important issues, particularly in areas where they believe the government should legislate morality. Why, for example, should the state force fathers to pay child support (a proposal designed by the Urban Institute)? Why should the government mandate that workers must save money for health insurance? If national health insurance is as inevitable as the authors predict, why isn't it already in force in the United States?

However, the authors' sensible proposals far outnumber their irritating ones. Particularly helpful are the sections where they discuss the history of welfare. The reader learns, for example, that the Great Society of the 1960s was created, not because of popular demand, but as "a campaign exercise under the Kennedy Administration." As Sen. Daniel Moynihan wrote in Family and Nation (1986), neither the voters nor the poor "asked for" Johnson-era welfare programs.

Butler and Kondratas's "conservative welfare state" is not George Will's; the welfare state they propose would be far smaller, far more efficient, and far more humane than today's programs. But readers of this book should understand that the proposals the authors advance are partial, but not complete, solutions to reducing poverty in America.