The problem with scholar's simple welfare `solution'

April 25, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Charles Murray, who is the sort of big-thinking, think-tank scholar that Washington's power elite listens to, has a new plan to reduce poverty, encourage work, fortify marriages, insure the uninsured, "replace the welfare state" and save money in the long run.

Unfortunately, his elegantly crafted and richly researched proposal, published by the conservative American Enterprise Institute as In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State, ultimately reminds me of H. L. Mencken's observation: "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong."

In short, one headline called Mr. Murray's plan "The $10,000 solution." He proposes to replace almost every federal social program - Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the earned income tax credit and the rest - with a $10,000 annual cash grant to every American over 21 and not in prison. Those of us who make more than $25,000 would have the $10,000 reduced to $5,000, but every adult not in prison would be included.

It's an attractive idea, if it worked, because Mr. Murray's plan would simplify the government's enormous menu of social spending in the way that the "flat tax," another conservative fantasy, would simplify the revenue-gathering process that gives us headaches every April 15.

If everybody received $10,000 under Mr. Murray's plan, much of the money undoubtedly would wind up in the pockets of lottery ticket vendors, liquor stores, neighborhood drug dealers and other temptations that help make some people poorer.

That's their problem, says Mr. Murray, a self-described libertarian who simply wants to "let people run their own lives." Let the magic of the marketplace, freed from government intrusion, create the incentives that will induce all but a negligible fraction of people to make good choices, he says.

One might ask whether Mr. Murray's free-market approach would put the brakes on health care inflation through competition, as he hopes. Or whether Americans really want to spend time arguing costs with health care insurers when government bureaucrats could do a better job of it.

Even some conservatives have misgivings. In a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector, who helped author the 1996 welfare reform law, noted that Mr. Murray's plan would wipe away that law's most significant feature: its requirement that able-bodied recipients of government aid provide some minimal work in return, which deters dependency and dysfunctional behavior.

Mr. Murray shrugged off that critique. "I don't want a bureaucrat to deal with dysfunctional behavior," he said.

Nevertheless, I give Mr. Murray credit. Even when I disagree with him, he often breaks the ice, even when he doesn't break new ground. He raises prickly questions that some on the right and left are too timid to raise in public, even when such questions deserve serious consideration and debate.

Thus, Losing Ground, his 1984 critique of welfare programs, fueled the Reagan-era debate that produced Bill Clinton's 1992 promise to "end welfare as we know it" and the stiff work requirements in the bipartisan welfare reform law of 1996. Combined with the decade's economic boom, welfare reform turned out to be a bigger success than even many of its supporters expected.

In 1994, Mr. Murray's incendiary best seller The Bell Curve, co-authored with Richard Herrnstein, tried to revive the widely discredited notion that differences in income might be determined at birth by inherited human differences. Other scholars shredded the book's almost willful shortchanging of the role played by differences in social environment. Yet, happily, the controversy led to new, long-overdue scholarly inquiry into the true reasons and possible remedies for differences in the academic performance of blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians.

Similarly, his latest work will do a service if it stirs new efforts to replace cumbersome bureaucracy with something neater and simpler - but not wrong.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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