You can't boost virtue by slashing aid

June 01, 1995|By Glenn C. Loury

ACCOUNTABILITY and "personal responsibility" are key words in this brave new era of welfare reform. As presidential aspirant Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, put it, "It is time for those riding in the wagon to get out and help the rest of us push."

The Republican majority in the House of Representatives proposes to remove legal immigrants from the rolls, to end the entitlement status of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, to eliminate cash benefits to minors, to require work from able-bodied recipients, to withhold benefits from women who cannot identify the father of their child and to terminate incremental payments to women bearing children while on the rolls.

But to what end? Certainly not to balance the federal budget, since savings from the most Draconian cuts being proposed in AFDC amount to less than one-half of 1 percent of annual federal spending. Thus, those eager to take an ax to programs supporting indigent women and their children justify the cuts by arguing that they are really acting in the long-term best interest of the recipients themselves.

Their argument is simple: Illegitimacy is a scourge ruining the lives of millions in our society; welfare as now constituted subsidizes illegitimacy; thus, by cutting and capping benefits we end the subsidy, and thereby help to eliminate the scourge. There are (at least) three fallacies in this reasoning:

* You can't push on a string. Illegitimacy is a growing problem in all industrialized nations except Japan and Switzerland. The causes of this development are cultural as well as economic. It is likely that a growing welfare state has contributed to this trend. -- But it does not follow that cutting support for the needy will reverse it.

The delicate social fabric has unraveled over the past generation, due in part to the seductive influences of a permissive culture and in part to the indifference of a liberal political establishment. By making it possible for young women to bear children outside of marriage and still marginally support themselves, welfare policies have, in effect, pulled on the loose threads of the social fabric and facilitated this unraveling. Even so, reversing those policies will not reweave the social fabric. Restoring social order will require rather more of us than that.

Anyone who doubts this need only consider the monumental shift in sexual mores that has occurred in our culture in the last 30 years. Think of how the social stigma against unwed pregnancy has vanished. Consider how adolescent peer groups, among males and females alike, glorify sexual adventure and bestow status on those peers who have mastered the "game." People's behavior in matters sexual cannot be finely calibrated by providing them with just the right marginal incentives under illegitimacy and family breakdown are, at base, cultural and moral problems, which require broad social action.

* The "Samaritan's Dilemma" is real. The fact is that a wealthy, decent society like ours will not tolerate the suffering of innocents. We will not, except in the most egregious cases, interpose the bureaucratic apparatus of the state between a child and its parents. Needy children born out-of-wedlock will, in the vast majority of cases, remain in the care of their mothers.

To the extent that these mothers cannot provide food, clothing and shelter to their children, assistance will come from the decent Samaritans in their midst -- and they know it. If federal assistance is cut, then local aid and private charity will rise to fill the gap. But changing the name of the Samaritan does not resolve the dilemma. Some hard-liners have argued that the federal government should not return welfare to the states, precisely because of this effect.

* Values are created in the private, not in the public sector. Legislators, acting out of frustration with the decline in public behavioral standards -- must recognize that their role in providing a solution to this serious problem is quite limited. By attempting to legislate morality, they risk doing real damage to innocent children, while provoking social division.

It is families, community organizations, churches and civic agencies that instill values. The state's role is limited for good reason: Promoting good behavior requires standards to be set and communicated, and judgments to be made as to whether those standards have been met. Such judgments require knowledge of individual circumstances, and the drawing of distinctions between individual cases, which may exceed the capacity of public institutions.

The instruments available to public agents for the shaping of character are coarse and relatively indiscriminate, compared with the distinctions and judgments which people make in their private social lives all the time.

Legislators concerned about "illegitimacy" should seek to encourage virtue not by slashing the level of benefits, but by structuring assistance to promote the development and expansion of those private, voluntary associations -- in church, families and community groups -- within which the real work of character development is best done.

Mutually concerned persons who trust one another enough to be able to exchange criticism constructively, establish codes of personal conduct and enforce social sanctions against undesirable behavior, can create and enforce communal norms much more effectively than the state. The coercive resources of the state, though great, are not especially subtle. Let us hope that there are minds up on Capitol Hill subtle enough to recognize this.

Glenn c. Loury is economics professor at Boston University and author of the forthcoming "One-by-One From the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America."

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