Self-reliance and Compassion

March 20, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

Two centuries ago Benjamin Franklin, that paragon of American self-reliance, took a dim view of government attempts to relieve poverty: ''There is no country in the world where so many provisions are established for them; so many hospitals receive them when they are sick and lame, founded and maintained by voluntary charities; so many almshouses for the aged of both sexes, together with a solemn law made by the rich to subject their estates to heavy tax for the support of the poor. . . .

''In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness, and you should not now wonder that it has had its effect in the increase of poverty.''

But compassion for the poor has an equally strong tradition in American life, from Jane Addams' Hull House, to countless religious and secular charities and government programs ranging from Social Security payments to widows, orphans and the disabled to the War on Poverty.

These two values -- self-reliance and compassion -- are not mutually exclusive, but you would never guess that from the tone of most welfare-reform debates.

Nobody likes the welfare system, but it seems that nobody wants to fork up the funds to make it better. The problem that always trips up would-be reformers is that, short of abolishing welfare altogether, most any significant change costs money and creates work for bureaucrats.

At this writing, President Clinton's promise to ''end welfare as we know it'' seems to be turning into a child-care project. After all, when you send young mothers to work, as the administration promises to do, somebody has to take care of the kids. Currently, there aren't enough subsidized, licensed child-care spots to meet the demand, and providing them will cost money.

Many proposals also raise issues of fairness. For instance, in an economy with a limited number of entry-level jobs, should welfare recipients get preference over everyone else? And what about scarce subsidies for child care? Is it fair to displace the children of parents who are working hard and barely making ends meet?

Once again, it seems that the best innovations will come not from Washington, but rather from state capitals around the country where officials have a close-up view of the problems plaguing the poor.

This session of the General Assembly provides a good example. Governor Schaefer's welfare reform commission rushed a ''preliminary'' report into publication last fall, largely, it appears, to pave the way for some legislative proposals.

But like much the national discussion, the governor's reforms focus largely on punitive measures. Some, like requiring under-age mothers to live with a parent in order to receive benefits, make a great deal of sense.

Others are intended more to send a tough message than to have much impact on the system. A prime example: the ''family cap'' denying increases in benefits to women who have more children after they come onto the welfare rolls. Relatively few women have further children while they are receiving welfare.

Fortunately, another welfare proposal is still alive in Annapolis. Sponsored by Del. Maggie McIntosh and Sen. Nathan C. Irby Jr., both from Baltimore, this plan attempts to address the revolving door by which families who leave the rolls often end up back in the system as soon as any crisis hits. Addressing that problem could do more to reduce the welfare rolls than any punitive measure.

The current process of applying for welfare is the bureaucratic equivalent of an assembly line, with little or no personal attention. Under this proposal, the application process would involve thorough assessment by a social worker, including counseling about family planning and drawing up a realistic plan for getting off welfare. That assessment would take a broader view of the family's needs than just the financial picture. For instance, if children needed counseling or tutoring, the case worker would try to match them with the appropriate programs.

The process would reinforce the message that welfare is meant to be temporary. And once recipients were ready to become self-reliant, the plan would also help bridge the gap between the benefits of the welfare system -- medical coverage, and the like -- to true self-sufficiency.

The Senate has already settled for the governor's relatively unimaginative proposals, but the House of Delegates still has a chance to adopt a more promising approach.

Self-reliance and compassion -- the best public policies speak to both. Self-reliance ingrains the kinds of habits that help people survive and thrive in an often unpredictable economy. But a good measure of compassion, both in public policies and in individual lives, is essential to a society in which people can live and prosper in safety and peace.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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