War on Welfare Dependency
A new crackdown is great politics, but the results may not thrill taxpayers
Cutting back. As public resentment toward welfare crests, presidential candidates and other politicians have started pressing for benefit cutbacks that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Clinton, for instance, has advanced a proposal to kick all able-bodied recipients off public assistance after two years, though he would also provide them with more-extensive education, training, child care, medical coverage and tax relief while on welfare. In California, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson is attempting to cut welfare checks by 25 percent for any family headed by an able-bodied adult still on AFDC after six months. Like New Jersey Gov. James Florio, Wilson is also trying to end the long-established practice of raising AFDC grants for women who have additional babies while on welfare. All told, 31 states froze AFDC benefits last year--and nine more actually trimmed benefits for some or all families. Next year, financially stressed states will likely seek more cutbacks.
Many Democrats and moderate Republicans consider the new paternalism just the latest and most devious pretext for making scapegoats of welfare recipients. Adjusted for inflation, the AFDC maximum benefit for a family of three with no income fell 42 percent in the typical state since 1970. And Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an author of the 1988 welfare-reform law, suggests that New Jersey lawmakers effectively ordered 6-week-old babies "to shape up or starve" when the state eliminated the extra $64 in monthly benefits that AFDC mothers ordinarily receive when they bear additional children. He and others worry that the new paternalism could transform government into a kind of morality police, ferreting out who among the poor is deserving and who is not. At worst, skeptics see it pandering to prejudices, since many voters associate welfare with being black. In fact, slightly more than half of all AFDC recipients are white or Hispanic.
Still, what is striking in the current controversy is that most elected officials now defend welfare restrictions as changes that help recipients, rather than just as cost-saving measures. Unlike its recent predecessors, the current policy debate is less about the scale of government aid than the strings attached to it. As Bush puts it: "[My] administration, the mayors, the state leaders who press for drastic reform of welfare aren't modern-day Scrooges chiseling one more dime out of some poor family."
Tale of two theories. In part, the rise of the new paternalism stems from two influential books written in the mid-1980s--one by political scientist Lawrence Mead, "Beyond Entitlement," the other by conservative intellectual Charles Murray, "Losing Ground." Murray contended that the court decisions, laws, bureaucratic reforms and new programs that made up the Great Society actually made the poor worse off and bred dependency. He proposed a simple solution (or "thought experiment") in response: Eliminate welfare benefits for all working-age adults. Unlike Murray, Mead wanted to keep government in the welfare business. He favored making public-assistance programs more exacting, arguing that recipients should be required to work toward self-sufficiency in exchange for receiving benefits.
To date, the new paternalism has adhered more to Mead's tough-love prescriptions than to Murray's scrap-welfare scheme. In effect, it is the vision of Bush and governors like Wilson, Florio and William Donald Schaefer of Maryland that welfare would one day become more like the Army. In return for clothing, financial support and training, welfare recipients would fulfill certain obligations: Parents would be in education and training courses, children would be in school and mothers would be hindered from having additional kids.