The 'reform' buzzword

December 20, 1991

As state governments face the bleak, long-term prospect of a sea of red ink, many are turning to cuts in social welfare programs as a way of balancing their budgets -- increasingly under the guise of "reforms" that supposedly help the poor by encouraging them to behave more "responsibly." By that reasoning Maryland soon should have some of the most exemplary poor people in the nation: A study released this week by the Washington-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported that Maryland is one of the seven states that have imposed the harshest budget cuts on the poor.

Never mind that state officials insist the sharp cuts in welfare benefits this year -- and even deeper cuts contemplated for the future -- are inspired not by the fiscal crisis but purely by a desire to help. Really, now.

The truth is, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that cutting benefits makes the poor better people. Indeed, the experience of states like Wisconsin and Ohio, which have cut payments to the poor on the dubious assumption that poverty builds character, suggests just the opposite: As people become more desperate, they become even more prone to engage in the very behaviors the reformists are trying to change.

Under the best circumstances, government is a blunt instrument for changing behavior, as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a perceptive student of welfare, suggested when he whimsically asked, "Have you ever tried to raise a kid?" So far, "reform" seems like just another euphemism for balancing the budget on the backs of the poor. We can already hear the next buzz-phrase for taking a buzz-saw to the social safety net: "Let them eat cake."

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