The welfare reform issue is rooted in social values


Scholars, books and policies are returning to basic American principles.

January 24, 1999|By David Kusnet | David Kusnet,Special to the Sun

If you can work for a living, you should support yourself. And, if you work full-time, you should earn a living wage. These two bedrock beliefs one seemingly conservative, the other liberal, sum up what most Americans think about the intricate, intertwined, and emotionally-charged issues of work, wages and welfare. And they explain why public policies are being shaped by two trends enjoying broad public support but espoused by political leaders from different ends of the ideological spectrum.

In 1996, Congress passed and President Clinton reluctantly signed into law welfare reform legislation that ends the entitlement to public assistance, moves millions off the welfare rolls, and shifts responsibility for most programs to the states. Spurred by this new policy, state and local governments are trying out tough-love policies of all kinds, from workfare requirements to job training and child care assistance for recipients striving to find and hold jobs.

But, at the same time, Clinton and the Congress have raised the minimum wage and increased tax credits for the working poor. And, in communities across the country, with Baltimore leading the way, cities and counties are adopting living wage ordinances raising pay scales for workers for government contractors.

These policies reflect Americans sympathy for the working poor and their antipathy to programs perceived as supporting, or even encouraging, such self-destructive behaviors as refusing to work or having children outside of marriage. And that is why debates about welfare reform and the living wage are inevitably arguments about values as well as dollars.

Recently, two scholarly books by small publishers have offered valuable insights to the moral as well as economic arguments about how public policies can encourage and reward work. And they also provide rare glimpses of academic authorities and public policy professionals grappling with public sentiments that simultaneously demand that the poor work for a living and support their struggles for a living wage.

"Work and Welfare" by Robert Solow and edited by Amy Gutman (Princeton University Press, 112 pages, $19.95) presents a series of lectures at Princeton shortly after the enactment of the 1996 welfare reform.

A prominent economist, Solow is so contemptuous of the new federal law that he declares, "I cannot bear to write down the fatuous title that Congress gave it." Yet Solow himself supports the law's basic objectives, explaining: "My main point ... is ... that the total or partial replacement of unearned welfare benefits by earned wages is the right solution to the problem of accommodating those values in the kind of economy that we have. Welfare recipients will feel better because they are exhibiting self-reliance. Taxpayers will feel better not merely because less is demanded of their limited altruism but also because they can see that their altruism is not being exploited."

To achieve these ends, Solow supports a comprehensive program of remedial education, job training, child care assistance, tax credits, and guaranteed health insurance for people moving from welfare to work. It is a program much like the plan Clinton himself offered in 1994 to redeem his 1992 campaign promise to end welfare as we know it, and it failed to pass a Congress controlled by his fellow Democrats.

While this book is about policy not politics, it would have been worthwhile for Solow and other contributors to this volume to explore why the original Clinton plan as well as similar proposals have mostly failed to win majority support on the national level.

To be sure, many conservatives oppose these kinder, gentler welfare reforms because, as Solow explains, they cost more money than simply maintaining poor people on a dwindling dole, much less cutting off their benefits entirely. And, as recently as 1994, there were still some die-hard liberals who opposed work requirements of almost any kind, even when coupled with such supports as child care and job training.

Of the other contributors, the conservative social thinker Gertrude Himmelfarb comes the closest to the caricature of the hard-nosed conservative who would sooner offer the dependent poor a lecture on individual responsibility than help with their health coverage. Writing admiringly of English social policies from the Elizabethan era to the Victorian age, in "Work and Welfare" she retroactively endorses poorhouses for those who are able but unwilling to work but has little to say about how to help those who work hard but have trouble making ends meet.

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