Stop the Devolution, I Want to Get Off

January 13, 1995|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- I admit, I've never liked the idea of states. Perhaps this is un-American of me. But it's hard to finish law school with much affection for the genius of our federalism.

Indeed, as Michael Kinsley once pointed out, half the three-year course of legal education could be dropped if prospective attorneys didn't have to learn the complexities of a system in which one federal and 50 state ''sovereignties'' compete over who can sue whom, where, and under whose rules. The country would be better off, I've always thought, if it were divided into 10 numbered sectors.

American conservatives, in particular, have been burdened by a federalism fetish. For example, right-wing federalism helped create the current welfare mess: the 1935 Congress would undoubtedly have banned cash aid to unwed mothers if conservatives hadn't insisted the question be left to the states. Now states-rights mongering threatens to derail what should be one of the Gingrich Congress' great achievements: reforming that same welfare system.

Remember the Contract With America? It was going to ''discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by prohibiting welfare to minor mothers . . . and enact a tough two-years-and-out provision with work requirements.'' States would be required to have 1.5 million recipients working by 2001. Many people, myself included, thought some of these provisions harsh. But in its radical sweep the bill matched the scope of the task at hand, which, Mr. Gingrich said, was transforming a ''culture of poverty'' sustained by welfare.

Don't bother memorizing those Contract provisions, though. Most have now been junked, in the name of ''devolution:'' sending power ''back to where it came from and belongs, back to the people and their state governments,'' as George Will put it in Newsweek.

Monday Mr. Gingrich backed off two of the Contract's main clauses: the cutoff of aid to legal aliens, and the cutoff for young unwed mothers. The work requirement, too, is apparently about to be dropped. Instead, if current negotiations between House Republicans and Republican governors succeed, welfare will be made a ''block grant'' to the states, which will fashion their own welfare programs.

Why the rush to send welfare to the states? Well, there are principled reasons. Congress makes ''one-size-fits-all'' rules, complains Michigan's GOP governor, John Engler. The argument that what's good for reducing the welfare-based underclass in Michigan won't work in, say, Florida. But this point is surely overdone. The forces responsible for the underclass -- segregation, the migration of jobs and the middle class from cities to suburbs, the welfare explosion -- are virtually the same everywhere.

A better explanation for the current devolutionary fervor is that it offers everyone a face-saving way to escape the draconian provisions of the Contract. Governors (even Republicans) hate the Contract, in part because it would leave them with the costly job of taking care of all the mothers and children cut from the welfare rolls. Even House Republicans are not necessarily displeased to see the Contract go, now that they've had time to actually read it.

The only problem is that, save for a single factor, devolution of welfare is a lousy idea. It means, for one thing, ending the principle that welfare benefits are an ''entitlement,'' for which poor families automatically qualify. Entitlements have drawbacks: Thanks to the Supreme Court, they come attached to a lot of legalistic ''due process.'' But they have advantages too: They allow programs to expand automatically during recessions.

There is also a danger that governors will go wild, ending all aid, cutting off the disabled, etc. But there is a greater danger they won't go wild enough. Governors tend to resist anything that might require a state tax increase, and making welfare recipients work, in particular, is quite expensive (at least $5,000 per recipient for child care, supervisors and tools). One reason the governors want ''devolution'' is precisely to get out from under the work requirement of the Contract. Will they adopt expensive work programs without money from Washington to pay for them?

Devolution is not in itself reform. It might save money, but it won't break the ''culture of poverty.'' What excuse can there be for avoiding a national solution to that national problem? Ignorance is the only excuse. Precisely because reforms in the states have been incremental, nobody is sure what effect radical changes will have. Are large numbers of welfare mothers incapable of working? Can work programs avoid becoming boondoggles?

We need the answers to those questions, quickly. There is no assurance that the governors, left to themselves, will give them to us. If we need to test out various reform schemes, then Congress should make sure that they get tested. Require, or induce, several states to try a broad ''workfare'' requirement. Get one state to try President Clinton's two-years-and-work plan, and one state the Contract's two-years-and-you're-off plan.

Let Congress provide enough money to give each scheme a chance, and let Congress then impose nationally the plan that works best. The underclass problem is too important to be left to the states.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written this week by Mickey Kaus.

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