Things Can Always Be Worse

February 20, 1994|By D.J. TICE

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA — St. Paul, Minnesota.--Much of the enthusiasm for sweeping change is rooted in the conviction that we couldn't possibly do worse than our current welfare system, or health-care system, or educational system, or whatever.

I take it to be a core conservative duty to remind one and all that things could always be worse.

Welfare reform, in particular, seems propelled by the belief that the current system is a counterproductive shambles. Welfare is a trap for many recipients, we're told, while for others it is the great ''enabler'' of economic dependency, making single motherhood and non-work plausible if self-destructive lifestyles. A convincing link is also made between long-term welfare dependency and crime, drugs and other miseries.

Thus the impulse for drastic change -- for the hope that by reforming welfare incentives and enriching opportunities for employment we can enrich and reform stunted lives. That hope fuels not just the Clinton administration's reform drive but also sweeping welfare changes in states from California to New Jersey. In Wisconsin, the conviction that things couldn't get worse is so settled that Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and legislative Democrats have agreed to abolish the current welfare system by 1999, without having agreed on what sort of new program should replace it.

It's easy to applaud this ''First, let's stop what doesn't work'' principle. But maybe we should ask ourselves exactly what we mean when we say welfare ''doesn't work.'' The overlooked fact is that welfare, for all its shortcomings, works surprisingly well for many.

We evaluate welfare today almost solely through the experience of the roughly half of all recipients who stay on the rolls, at least sporadically, for as many as 10 or 15 years. But we forget the other half, who are using welfare pretty much as we would hope -- as a temporary helping hand when circumstances plunge them into economic need, a hand they let go of within two years or so. So existing welfare, plus existing economic opportunities, succeed as an anti-poverty strategy at least as often as they fail. That's not so bad by social-policy standards.

In his marvelous book, ''The New Politics of Poverty,'' Lawrence Mead notes that only about 4 percent of the able-bodied U.S. population remains statistically poor for more than two years. Treasury Department figures show that between 1979 and 1988, almost 86 percent of Americans who began the period in the lowest one-fifth of the income scale had advanced to a higher income segment by the end -- many into considerable prosperity.

In short, a great many Americans escape deep poverty and welfare dependency despite all the disincentives in the welfare system and the supposed lack of opportunity for low-skill workers. Mr. Mead notes estimates that more than half of single mothers on the largest welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, can increase their total income by working full-time even if they receive no child support and have to pay for child care. And many do just that. Mr. Mead says about 40 percent of mothers who leave AFDC do so at least in part by increasing their personal earnings. Many others escape through marriage.

Thus it's not at all clear that perverse welfare incentives and lack of opportunity inevitably produce lasting dependency. They don't produce it in most people who confront these obstacles. Something else seems to separate those who hunker down on welfare from those who claw their way off. Mr. Mead suspects some kind of profound demoralization and social incapacity among the persistently dependent.

Would the various reform schemes to push welfare recipients into jobs after two years, while perhaps providing training and day care and subsidies and public employment, cure whatever ails the hard-core underclass? Is anyone prepared to say more than ''maybe''?

What these reforms will almost certainly do is make the welfare system more expensive. They will provide additional benefits to many welfare recipients who are now working their way out of poverty without them; and they will make welfare more attractive, as it becomes a road to job training, child care and a virtually guaranteed job.

These cautionary thoughts are not an argument against reforming welfare; the need to try is clear. They are an argument for caution.

Welfare as we know it is not a total failure, unless we look only at those who totally fail. And the causes of such drastic failure, which probably lie deep in individuals' experiences and attitudes, may not yield to changed incentives. Not every problem can be solved by government policy, not even by tough conservative policy.

And things can always be worse.

PD D.J. Tice is an editorial writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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