D.C.'s welfare reform plan

June 12, 1995

In a fascinating replay in miniature of the national debate over crime and welfare reform, the District of Columbia's overwhelmingly Democratic, "liberal" city council has given its blessing to two bills that could have come straight out of Newt Gingrich's "Contact with America." If that seems a contradiction, it only shows how corrupted words like "liberal" and "conservative" have become in a season when political labels are tossed around with careless contempt for meanings.

The council, alarmed over rampant juvenile crime in neighborhoods where parents can't or won't control their children, passed a curfew banning young people under 17 from being on the street after 11 p.m. on weekdays or after midnight on weekends. (Recall Baltimore passed a similar curfew; it remains largely unenforced.) In a separate measure, the council put a "family cap" on welfare benefits that eliminates automatic increases in payments for additional children.

The two D.C. measures were the subject of heated debate between supporters, who argued that conditions in some areas of the city are now so desperate that new standards had to be set, and critics, who complained the measures marked a surrender of Washington's traditional liberal values. The arguments echoed the larger debate in Congress and in state legislatures over how far government should go to influence people's decisions about whether to have a child and other intimate details of family life.

What made the exchange so intriguing was that it occurred among the 13-member D.C. council as opposed to the 188 members of the Maryland General Assembly or the 535 members of the U.S. Congress. Opposing views were sharply etched, with no room for the obfuscation that routinely occurs in larger bodies. Maryland, for example, passed substantially similar welfare legislation earlier this year, but only after a furious round of last-minute, backroom dealing that made it nearly impossible to say exactly who voted for what.

The district's adoption of a so-called "conservative" line on crime and welfare should serve as a warning about the superficiality of trendy political labels. Surveys consistently report that blacks, for example, are slightly more "conservative" than whites on social issues like abortion and teen-age pregnancy, but more "liberal" on issues like gun control and federal aid to cities. The apparent contradiction shows how misleading such labels can be as the nation rethinks its commitment to the welfare state in an era of partisan rhetoric and political one-upmanship.

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