IN THE ROILING DEBATE over welfare reform, one truth is indisputable: Welfare takes money away from people who earned it and gives it to people who didn't.
That isn't charity, it is something closer to theft. The welfare state robs working men and working women not only of their earnings, but of something more precious – the freedom to decide for themselves how they will fulfill their moral obligation to help the poor.
Unlike mercy, welfare is twice-curs'd: It curseth him that gives and him that takes. In terms of dollars and cents, it is surely the costliest failure in American history. More than $300 billion is now poured each year into the US welfare system; the Congressional Budget Office estimates that welfare spending will hit $500 billion per year before the decade is out. Since the "War on Poverty" was declared in the mid-1960s, it has chewed up an almost incomprehensible $4.9 trillion.
It has also chewed up vast tracts of urban America, pulverized black family life, and devastated much of an entire generation.
Welfare destroys lives, corrodes character, and promotes poverty. With an offer that many girls and women find irresistible, it seems designed to encourage people to degrade themselves and ruin their children's future: "We will give you free money and other valuable benefits," the government tells them, "on three conditions: You must have babies, stay unmarried, and not get a job." The result has been a staggering rise in illegitimacy, the most toxic social problem of our time.
In Massachusetts, 110,000 mothers are on Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Many went on welfare reluctantly and will get off quickly. But according to the Department of Public Welfare, "more than 65 percent of all AFDC families at any given time are in the midst of stays which will eventually last eight years or more."
Any welfare reform that doesn't choke off the incentives to behave self-destructively is no reform. The existing system makes it easy and even attractive to have babies out of wedlock. Real reform will make it difficult, unappealing, and unrewarding:
- By reducing or eliminating cash benefits.
- By not giving welfare mothers additional benefits when they have additional children.
- By paying nothing to high school dropouts.
- By requiring able-bodied welfare recipients to show up for work every day – not in a few years, not after "job training," but now.
Of the welfare-reform proposals being considered in Massachusetts, only Governor Weld's – which halts cash payments to healthy recipients after 60 days, and provides day care so the children will be cared for while the mothers go to work – comes close to getting it right. By giving unwed girls a good reason not to get pregnant, it would turn the existing incentives inside out. And it would stop treating welfare recipients as infants incapable of behaving responsibly.
Weld has asked Washington for a waiver allowing Massachusetts to adopt his welfare package. Such a waiver wouldn't make Weld's proposal law, it would merely empower the Legislature to do so.
But a speck of sovereignty for the state they represent is apparently unthinkable to US Representatives Barney Frank, John Olver, Richard Neal, and Gerry Studds. The four very liberal Democrats implore US Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala to reject Weld's request; their co-ideologists in the Senate, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, reportedly plan to do likewise. "Many people who go on the AFDC roles [sic] do so in consequence of some disruption in their family lives," the congressmen say. "To tell people who have suddenly been plunged into economic difficulties . . . that they have 60 days in which to get themselves together and get a job seems to us unduly short." Better, they argue, to give welfare mothers "a two-year time period with a guaranteed job at the end of the period."
Weld's response, sent to Shalala last week, hits that argument out of the park.
"The fundamental problem with AFDC," writes the governor, "rests in the . . . failure to reflect the values and incentives that dominate life decisions for the vast majority of people who live and work in this country.
"Working people who suffer a setback in life do not get a two-year vacation to put things back together. Most return to work and self-sufficiency almost immediately. Many consider productive activity to be helpful in dealing with a loss or a setback. Virtually none would expect a two-year cooling-off period to sort out their lives.
"AFDC recipients should be treated no differently than other working people, because they are no different."
Allied with Frank & Co. are those whose political fortunes depend on maintaining an underclass "in need" of aid. Those who seriously want to end welfare as we know it, to coin a phrase – and those who care about the working people robbed to pay for welfare's failures – will line up with Weld.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
-- ## --