It's scapegoat time

November 17, 1994|By Bob Herbert

TROUBLED TIMES require the comforting presence of scapegoats. I remember an incident many years ago in which a thin, bespectacled, awkward and dim-witted recruit at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., was beaten up by fellow soldiers who blamed him for a blizzard that had confined everybody to the base.

A delighted roar arose when the hapless recruit was tossed out of the barracks and into the snow. The scapegoat had done his job. He had made everybody feel better, even though nothing had changed.

The Republican Party, delirious with its recent successes but lacking any solutions to the very serious problems that underlie the voters' unease, has accelerated its cruel tactic of demonizing people on welfare.

The tactic is working. Welfare recipients have become the official national scapegoats. All across the country politicians who know zip about welfare reform are rallying to Sen. Phil Gramm's cry to get those bums out of the wagon and tell them to help push.

Welfare as we know it is the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program or AFDC. Compared with programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, it is not a big budget item. But it is the program people love to hate.

Joel Handler, a law professor at UCLA who has studied the welfare system for decades, said: "It's not the amount of money that's being spent, it's what the money is spent for. The stereotype welfare recipients, the image that fits the reform proposals, are young women, without education, who are long-term dependents and whose dependency is passed on from generation to generation. The subtext is that these women are inner-city substance-abusing blacks spawning a criminal class."

Like most stereotypes, this one is incorrect.

According to Professor Handler, most welfare recipients are "short-termers." Most do not live in big-city ghettos. Most get themselves off welfare by working.

Nationally, according to Mark Greenberg of the Center for Law and Public Policy, about 38 percent of AFDC recipients are black and roughly the same number are white. "Certainly," said Mr. Greenberg, "the public perception is that the program has become more black over time. In fact, it is less black now than it used to be. In 1969 about 45 percent were black.

"Most families -- about 72 percent -- have only one or two children. The number with four or more is about 10 percent and that number has gone down dramatically over time.

"Also there's a strong focus on the teen parent. But only about 8 percent of the AFDC parents are under the age of 20."

The problem for people on welfare is the absence of decent employment. Many recipients work off the books to supplement their welfare payments. Neither welfare nor a low-paying job is sufficient by itself to support a family. Mr. Gramm's idea that welfare recipients are living the good life at the expense of the rest of us is ludicrous.

"The problem," said Professor Handler, "is poverty." He noted that 35 million Americans live below the official poverty line, which is $11,890 for a family of three. Fourteen million Americans have an income that is less than half the poverty line.

But politicians don't talk about poverty anymore.

The irony is that the shortage of decent and secure employment is the single biggest factor driving the herds of discontented voters into the GOP camp. These voters are faced with the same essential problem as welfare recipients: inadequate employment.

Meaningful welfare reform (with the goal of moving recipients from welfare to work) is much more expensive than leaving the system alone, at least for the first several years. A serious program of this type is highly unlikely in the present political atmosphere.

The more extreme approach, popular among the more conservative Republicans, is to simply dump as many people as possible off the welfare rolls.

"That," said Mr. Greenberg, "is a prescription for social disaster."

Nevertheless, that is the direction in which we are moving. We will see a blossoming of the totally destitute -- women and children with nothing, no food, no place to live.

The scapegoats are about to pay a fearful price.

Bob Herbert is a columnist for the New York Times.

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