There's No Ending Welfare As We Know It

June 29, 1994|By EDWARD J. BIRD

ROCHESTER, NEW YORK — A plan promising to ''end welfare as we know it'' is now in the finishing stages. In rough outline the plan calls for more training, counseling and day care for poor mothers, who may be forced to work for their checks if they've been on the rolls more than two years, and may be kicked off the program for ''bad'' behavior, like dropping out of school.

''Welfare as we know it'' is likely to survive. Welfare exists because there is poverty, and poverty seems to be a constant in human society.

The starvation that was common in Europe only a century or two ago has been all but wiped out. But poverty is a social construction, rediscovered every 20 years or so. As national income rises, the notion of what one needs to escape poverty rises with it. Societies are never satisfied with the level of comfort among their worst-off citizens.

Britain's first social scientist, Charles Booth, measured poverty in the 1880s at about 8 percent of the population. In his day, the ''answer'' to poverty was to punish the poor by putting them in workhouses. Britain has changed its economic and social policies countless times since then. Many of these changes were radical, sometimes involving central management of the economy and other times an unrestricted free market. Some of these policies, you would think, would have affected the poverty rate. Not so. Poverty rates constructed by contemporary social scientists remain between 5 and 10 percent.

Germany and Sweden are generous welfare states, with extensive training for laid-off workers, free vocational education for youth and virtually unlimited cash assistance for those down on their luck. No countries have ever done more to help the poor get back on their feet. At times Sweden's welfare state controlled more than half the GNP. All the same, social scientists report poverty rates in these countries between 5 and 10 percent. Rising needs always seem to overtake rising incomes, leaving behind a small but significant part of society.

Some would argue that the welfare state is not the answer but the problem, that by making poverty easier to bear, government actually encourages it. But cutting welfare to reduce poverty doesn't work either. The U.S. has one of the developed world's smallest welfare states, but one of its highest poverty rates.

Our own experience is illuminating. More than any other country, we have changed our policies and looked for permanent solutions, beginning with the War on Poverty some 30 years ago, and continuing today under the Family Support Act of 1988. Almost everything that could be varied has been; cash-grant levels, work requirements, child support, day care, job training and so on. Some combinations of these things, at some times, in some places, have had a small effect on the ability of the poor to get out of poverty. No policy has been shown to have a large effect, however, nor an effect that persists through time or at different sites.

Nor does the size of our efforts matter. Between 1960 and 1990, government spending on welfare rose from $360 to $1,628 per household, in inflation-adjusted 1991 dollars. Yet since 1965 the poverty rate has never been more than three points above or below 14 percent.

In all countries, at all times, two things are constant. First, some people are poor. Second, if the government gives poor people money, it makes their lives easier. The question of welfare is simply how much money to give, and how to give it. One can argue what the right approach should be. But no one can argue that if we do it the right way, we will get rid of poverty forever, and with it the burden of public welfare. The evidence is overwhelming; no country has ever spent its way out of the need to spend.

The Clinton welfare-reform plan ignores these lessons. The phrase ''ending welfare as we know it,'' is a stratagem to raise the political viability of the plan (which will be quite expensive), by building hopes of a final solution to welfare. The strategy might work, because Americans are truly disgusted with the system; one poll reported that 54 percent of U.S. adults think the government is spending too much money on welfare.

But the plan could also backfire. If Americans look back just 30 years to the War on Poverty, which took a very similar training-and-rehabilitation approach, and which utterly failed to end welfare, they will see plenty of reason to doubt the administration. Providing all welfare recipients with make-work government jobs will come to look like what it is: an expansion of welfare, not an end to it.

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