Magazines: Poor Analysis


In 1989, the citizens of Central and Eastern Europe finally began to free themselves from the specters of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. But in America the influence of the leaders of the 1930s has not faded. The welfare state constructed by Lyndon Johnson on foundations laid by Franklin Roosevelt still stands.

George Bush's welfare programs differ very little from Jimmy Carter's. In the 1980s, spending for most entitlements increased slightly, except for Social Security, whose budget rose dramatically. Federal job-training programs were cut substantially, but the money saved went to new programs for the homeless. Welfare spending, like most domestic policy, has been frozen as if in amber. The Reagan administration did very little to change the mix or nature of the federal welfare budget.

Intellectually, however, conservatives, and libertarians gained a great deal of territory in the welfare war. Charles Murray's Losing Ground was the most influential book of social policy published in the 1980s. Murray was the first to demolish Great Society and New Deal welfare policies using the language and techniques with which those policies were built.

Thus in 1990 liberals increasingly doubt that the welfare state is a guaranteed remedy for all the ills of the poor. One example of liberal rethinking is Mickey Kaus's hard-hitting piece in the May 7 New Republic arguing that income redistribution is not a good idea; the papers of the Progressive Policy Institute are another. In fact, looking through the pages of The Nation, The Progressive, Dissent, Social Policy, and In These Times, I could not find anyone willing wholeheartedly to defend Roosevelt's and Johnson's welfare policies.

This reluctance is due partly to simple laziness, partly to the impact of Losing Ground, and partly to the concept of the underclass and the allied notion that the problems of the poor are intractable. It's much easier endlessly to repeat a sound bite that isn't true ("The welfare budget was slashed during the Reagan Administration") than seriously to consider the ideas underlying the welfare state.

For example, consider the notion that "homeless families" are flooding into the nation's streets. Dan McMurry, a sociologist so dedicated to examining homelessness that he posed as a homeless man for 18 months, reported his findings in the October Chronicles. McMurry discovered that two-parent families with children represent a very small share of the homeless. Most "families" in shelters are "fragments of relationships"—single mothers with their children or unmarried couples traveling together. Indeed, some "family" shelters exclude men.

The two most reliable surveys of the homeless, McMurry notes, found very few couples with children. Peter Rossi, in Down and Out in America, writes that "the homeless have failed in the marriage market about to the same extent as they have failed in the labor market." A 1989 Urban Institute report concluded that 79 percent of the homeless were single men, 10 percent single women, 9 percent women with children, and the remaining 1 percent men with children. The Urban Institute, McMurry writes, found no "families as we generally think of the term."

Why do these "fragments of relationships" hit the road? McMurry believes that, in most cases, the head of a homeless "family" is a "1990 female version of the bum, wino, and tramp of earlier times." She is most likely to be in a shelter not because of economic necessity but to escape the "oppressive daily grind" of life.

McMurry's article helps to refute the pernicious notion that people become and stay poor because they are victims of Reaganomics, greed, or fate. Liberals tend not to realize that many poor people become poor because of actions they freely choose to take—dropping out of high school, not marrying, having babies. McMurry 's deconstruction dispels these romantic illusions.

While liberals were rethinking their time-honored positions on welfare, conservatives were discovering two "facts" about poverty, one true and one false. The true discovery, first brought to light by Robert Woodson and Cicero Wilson, is that many people in low-income communities are successfully climbing the economic ladder. The poor are not simply a horde of tax-sucking welfare heats who need a stern kick or two to come to their senses. The wrongheaded notion is that the welfare state is inevitable, and the best that we can hope for is a conservative version of it.

Although policymakers have used the term conservative welfare state for years, they've never clarified how it differs from the social-democratic welfare state. So I am grateful that Policy Review editor Adam Meyerson, in the summer issue of his journal, has tried to determine what form of welfare conservatives should advocate. He argues that conservatives should support temporary help instead of the dole. Giving a single mother three or four years of welfare when she has a child is, to Meyerson, acceptable; giving a single mother 18 years of subsidies per child, on the other hand, is intolerable. Meyerson also advocates shifting the welfare burden to states and cities as much as possible and finding nongovernmental solutions when feasible.

But unemployment and welfare programs administered by the states are as tangled in red tape and mindless bureaucracy as any program staffed by federal employees. While "shaking up state and local bureaucracies" may be a good idea, experience shows that, unless the bureaucracy's budget is cut, the "shakers" leave and the careerists stay. Most of the Reaganites who thought they could wield an ax against the federal budget found themselves on the street.

Meyerson rightly calls for more research on "private-sector and community based solutions to social problems." Because conservative foundations do not have the budgets of a Ford Foundation or Carnegie Corp., such research is scarce. But Meyerson has made a substantial addition to conservative arguments on welfare by publishing, in the fall Policy Review, Marvin Olasky's analysis of the origins of welfare spending.

Olasky, a journalism professor at the University of Texas, explores how Victorian and Edwardian Americans worked with the poor. Far from being stonehearted social Darwinists, Olasky explains, most Victorians believed that people who were down and out should be helped. But they tended to oppose handouts. Alms, observed reformer Jacob Riis, are "degrading and pauperizing." City spending on welfare, said the Rhode Island Board of State Charities and Corrections, "does more hurt than good, and makes more paupers than it relieves." Aid, the Victorians felt, should be personal and direct; volunteers should help only three to five people at a time. Because aid givers knew the poor intimately, they were able readily to differentiate between the truly destitute and pretenders.

In the early 20th century, however, these attitudes changed. Social work became professionalized. Armed with their master's degrees or doctorates, the heads of the leading charities increasingly believed that volunteer work was inefficient and lowly, and they made sure that people who signed up at their agencies to help did clerical work instead of assisting the poor. Furthermore, many Christian leaders thought that people could best serve God through an abstract desire to save the masses, usually by boosting government spending on poverty.

To aid the poor, Olasky suggests, we should once again think of them not as "clients" or as masses, but as individuals who are best served by the stern but loving aid of those who are better off and who freely donate their time. But how should this be done? In the May Washington Monthly, Jonathan Rowe and Stephen Waldman describe one promising idea, "service credits."

Proposed by Edgar Cahn, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, service credits work like this: A volunteer bank pays elderly people who perform services for their peers—taking them to the store, mowing a lawn—with credits they can trade for similar services or for discounts on health insurance. Currently in use in five states, service-credit programs are not only popular, they're cheap. In Miami, one full-time employee, one part-time employee, and 10 VISTA workers supervise nearly 1,000 volunteers.

Service credits take the person-to-person approach to aiding the poor that charities have avoided for more than 50 years. Most people, Rowe and Waldman report, don't turn in their credits. They're simply grateful for a chance to make a difference in other people's lives. The authors also show that only private organizations can make sure that service credits work properly. When the state of Florida attempted to administer service credits, its welfare chief, Margaret Lynn Duggar, sabotaged the effort.

Duggar feared that volunteers would threaten the jobs of her social workers (how dare uncredentialed amateurs "perform such technical tasks as cooking lunch for a bedridden man!"). So she imposed so many restrictions that the program was not launched until a month before it was supposed to expire. Having killed the program, the dutiful bureaucrat then spent $20,000 in tax money to poll other state departments about whether service credits work.

Olasky, Rowe, and Waldman are all on the right track. The debate over welfare policy has been grounded in a false dilemma: a choice between existing welfare programs and nothing at all. But Americans are a charitable people. Their inclination to help offers a third alternative. The vast potential for private assistance would be obvious if we saw the poor not as clients, patients, or excuses for bigger budgets, but simply as fellow men and women whose problems are as diverse as our country.

Martin Morse Wooster is the Washington editor of REASON.