Raising the level of desperation

Glenn McNatt

December 03, 1991|By Glenn McNatt

CUTTING WELFARE payments to encourage poor families to keep their kids in school and see that they get regular medical checkups won't make the poor better parents -- only more desperate ones.

Granted, no one is happy with the present system -- not the middle class, nor the blue collar working class nor even welfare recipients. Increasingly, working Americans are telling their elected officials that they are tired of government "giveaways" to people who can't or won't work. And the politicians are listening.

In some states -- the gubernatorial elections in Louisiana and Mississippi are only the most recent examples -- frustration with the perceived "failure" of the welfare system has taken on ugly racial overtones as well. Though the majority of welfare recipients always has been white, Americans prefer to see "the welfare problem" as one exclusively affecting blacks.

Yet there is no evidence that racial demagogy played any role in Governor Schaefer's proposal last week to sharply cut state welfare spending by reducing payments to families with children and eliminating General Public Assistance grants for disabled adults.

On the contrary, Maryland's fledgling attempt at welfare reform appears to have grown mainly out of the fiscal crisis produced by the state's projected $450 million budget deficit. State Human Resources Secretary Carolyn W. Colvin estimated the proposed changes could save the state as much as $18 million a year.

Under Governor Schaefer's plan, the basic welfare grant to a mother with two children would drop from $406 a month currently to $264 a month by July 1. If the mother could document that her children attended school, received regular medical checkups and that she paid her rent on time, the basic monthly payment would rise to $377 a month.

Secretary Colvin characterized the new system as an attempt to encourage "responsibility" among poor families. "I think there has to be a clear message that if the state is going to help you to meet your needs, we expect you to meet certain responsibilities," she said last week.

But just as you cannot "legislate morality," it may be impossible ,, to improve people's parenting skills through economic coercion. The more likely result could be simply to increase the level of desperation among those whose lives are already on the edge.

It is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to raise two children on $406 a month -- even with food stamps and subsidized housing. No wonder so many women "cheat" by moonlighting as undocumented workers or by having live-in boyfriends who contribute toward household expenses. Welfare grants already are so meager they can barely support a single adult, let alone families with children.

One reason our present policy is seen as a failure is that the system seems to be governed by contradictory impulses. On the one hand, we want welfare to be a temporary form of assistance that will allow people to get back on their feet after a setback and regain their self-sufficiency and self-respect. On the other, we want to punish poor people for behavior that, in our eyes, causes them to remain in poverty. If only they would act more responsibly, have fewer children, etc., etc.

But there is no evidence you can make the poor better people by pushing them more deeply into poverty. Quite the opposite is likely to occur. Yet in effect that is what Governor Schaefer's plan would do by cutting benefits in order to compel the poor to become more responsible parents.

We are deceiving ourselves if we think we are doing this to poor families "for their own good." It will not help them, and it will actually hurt many of them. But a decade of relentless stereotyping by Republican administrations in Washington -- remember Reagan's "welfare queens"? -- probably will make it easier for lawmakers in Annapolis to approve the cuts and easier for Maryland taxpayers to rationalize this plan as long-overdue "reform," when what is actually happening is that thousands more people are going to be made hungry and homeless.

Sure, there are some parents who are incorrigible -- nothing short of the threat of jail, perhaps, will make them fulfill their responsibilities. But they are a relatively small minority even among the poor. (Plenty of middle-class parents also have lost control of their children.)

Most poor parents will react to a major loss of income exactly the way anyone else would: panic, depression, anger -- and perhaps later, resignation. Those who are already trying will keep trying, but with fewer resources and a smaller chance of success. That may not make them more "responsible," but it certainly will make them a lot poorer -- and a lot more desperate.

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