The Hemingway Fallacy

June 19, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- President Clinton, having produced a radical response to the spurious crisis in health care, now produces a mild response to the lethal crisis in welfare.

The crux of his welfare plan is the supposed two-year limit on benefits, after which recipients must find work or take subsidized private- or public-sector jobs. Such jobs are apt to be make-work and can be perpetual, so this looks a lot like welfare as we have known it. However, facts are slowly being faced, beginning with the Hemingway Fallacy about poverty.

''The rich are different from us,'' said Fitzgerald, to whom Hemingway replied, ''Yes, they have more money.'' Until recently the assumption was that the poor are like everyone else, lacking only money. Hence the optimistic assumption was that Social Security is a model for attacking poverty because government is good at one thing -- mailing checks. However, Social Security recipients are a stable, socially competent cohort. The new, grimmer understanding is that many of the urban poor do not lack only the things government can dispense -- food, housing, money. Rather, theirs is a poverty of inner resources.

Unfortunately, the core value of liberalism -- compassion, meaning the amelioration of pain -- focuses liberals' attention on the condition of the poor, not on the attributes of the poor that contribute to their condition. To do otherwise would amount, liberals believe, to ''blaming the victims,'' the poor being defined as victims of racism, sexism, capitalism, history, ''the system.'' And many conservatives sound similar when saying that the poor have been impoverished of the vigorous virtues -- energy, independence, self-sufficiency -- by welfare.

Ronald Reagan pioneered cheery conservatism, the premise of which is that ''the people'' are morally healthy and reasonable, hence social problems result almost entirely from perverse incentives produced by foolish government. Such conservatism sells because it soothes. But it is false. ''Over the past two decades,'' writes James Q. Wilson of UCLA, ''this nation has come face to face with problems that do not seem to respond, or respond enough, to changes in incentives.''

Today's impacted poor represent what has been called an ''internal secession'' from society -- from school, work, parenting, lawfulness. The heart of the problem is childhood poverty produced by the plague of illegitimacy, which is the result of the dissolution of the stigma against it. The welfare system's increasing support for unwed mothers -- for illegitimacy -- since the 1960s surely is related to the decline of the stigma. Today's task, daunting because novel, is the deliberate regeneration of the ''social capital'' of habits and mores necessary for civilized living. This probably cannot be a gentle process.

Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute believes that poisonous carrots -- improvidently ''compassionate'' welfare policies -- have subverted families. He also believes that sticks, meaning the deliberate provision of unpleasant consequences, are necessary as correc- tives. Anything effective in restoring the family will be effective by causing suffering.

Perhaps no government produced by democracy in this age, and certainly no liberal government whose organizing value is compassion, can act on that principle. Consider the response, during the Clinton administration's deliberations about welfare reform, when someone proposed a little stick -- a twig, really.

U.S. News reports that Henry Cisneros, the secretary of housing and urban development, recoiled from the suggestion that unmarried teen-age mothers be required to live at home rather than receive welfare payments to help them establish separate households. ''In some Hispanic families,'' he warned, ''it is a badge of dishonor for a teen-ager to get pregnant out of wedlock. Some of those girls will get abused if they have to stay at home.''

Abuse would be unfortunate, but the stigma is indispensable. Yet Mr. Cisneros, in the name of compassion -- a compassion that kills -- would subsidize the evasion of the stigma by young women who, by behaving irresponsibly, deserve a badge of dishonor that might deter others from such behavior.

In the welfare-reform debate the president's voice will be of only modest importance because, as the health-care debate demonstrates, congressional government is gaining momentum against his marginalized presidency. The focus of the debate should be Urie Bronfenbrenner's dictum that to thrive a child needs the ''irrational involvement'' of one or more adults. Asked to define that phrase, Mr. Bronfenbrenner, a Cornell psychologist, says, ''Someone has to be crazy about that kid.'' Preferably two someones, called parents.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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