Baltimore, 1991

December 31, 1991

According to a report issued this month by the Baltimore Department of Social Services, 15 percent of the city's population received family welfare payments during the 1991 fiscal year -- a substantial jump of 5.3 percent over the previous year. When you consider that Baltimore has only about one-sixth of the state's population, and more than half the families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the main social welfare program, it's pretty clear that this city is headed for serious trouble.

Yet by any reasonable standard, the present welfare system is the least efficient way to cope with the problem. When a woman loses her job in a government agency because of layoffs and is forced to go on welfare, for example, the net result is that the government which used to pay her to perform useful work now must pay her to do nothing at all.

In effect, the cost is simply shifted from one government payroll to another. Yet in the former case taxpayers at least got some tangible service for their dollars, while in the latter they get nothing but generational dependency.

In past recessions, government could stimulate recovery by creating public sector jobs, either directly through programs such as the old Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps, or indirectly through grants to quasi-public neighborhood and community agencies. But the deficits of the 1980s preclude massive new government jobs programs, and federal aid to urban areas, which a decade ago made up a quarter of the budget in cities like Baltimore, has virtually ended.

The budget crunch has forced local government to cut back just at a time both it and the federal government ought to be expanding their roles -- a circumstance due in large part to the shortsighted tax cuts of the grab-all-you-can '80s. The result has been a progressive impoverishment of the cities which historically fueled economic growth. Now those same cities are going bankrupt one by one or, like Baltimore, are reduced to pitiful islands of destitution. And yet, having hobbled government's ability to help, we blame the welfare mother for not having a job, and begrudge the meager meals charity puts on her childrens' table.

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