Poverty and welfare

October 04, 1999|By Jim Lynskey

IGNORANCE is not random," exclaimed Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat, earlier this year as he pleaded in vain for support of his amendment that would have required the Department of Health and Human Services to track the well-being of former welfare recipients.

Since the 1996 welfare reforms were initiated, an estimated 4.6 million Americans, mostly women and children, have been forced off the welfare rolls.

A study by the General Accounting Office found that most adults who left public aid in recent years were able to find work, but the actual well-being of families after welfare remains unknown.

Although reducing welfare dependency by fiat is reason enough for some to celebrate, it may have little to do with reducing poverty; indeed, it might possibly increase the misery index. The point is, we don't know, and more important, most of our congressmen don't want to know.

It certainly is a fascinating question, how, let us say, a single mother, who is employed at an entry-level job paying $6 or $8 an hour and has several children, pays for food, health care, housing, child care and other essentials.

Problems of the poor

Perhaps the lawmakers don't want to know because they already know that while the economy may be robust, soup kitchens and homeless shelters are thriving. Or maybe they don't want to know because they know that millions of citizens are working full-time but earning less than the federal poverty level.

Or, they withdraw from the question because they know that the shortage of low-cost housing is so critical in most areas that a person would have to earn at least twice the minimum wage to afford a decent two-bedroom apartment.

Or maybe they intuitively understand that what they do not want to know is linked to the fact that, in the richest country in the world, one of every five children lives in poverty and 43 million children and adults do not have health insurance.

The problem of not wanting to know what you don't know is not limited to welfare reform. There seems to be an epidemic of willful ignorance in our society, and many public policies desperately need evaluation.

A timely example is our criminal justice system, which, in the rush to "get tough on crime," has moved increasingly from rehabilitation to punishment.

What policy makers don't want to know is the impact on a civilized society when millions of embittered, frequently sociopathic or psychotic, uneducated ex-convicts without job skills are put back on the streets.

Politicians just keep building more prisons with more isolation units, ignoring the fact that 90 percent of prisoners are eventually released and many are more dangerous after imprisonment than they were before being incarcerated.

It is ironic that the human species does not seem to get any smarter. Our emotional and intellectual capacity appears to be just about where it was several thousand years ago.

As we produce ever more spectacular advances in science and technology, our social scientists and philosophers are still struggling with the same basic questions that troubled Aristotle and Plato 24 centuries ago.

I am reminded of the saying "If the people will lead, the leaders will follow." Perhaps someday when things get bad enough, we shall find the will to force our leaders to shed their ignorance.

Jim Lynskey is a professor emeritus of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.

Pub Date: 10/04/99

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