Not so long ago, one of America’s leading politicians delivered an insightful speech about the ills of welfare. “The lessons of history,” he explained, “show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber.” This politician went on to castigate the giving of welfare benefits without expecting anything of the recipients, charging that “to dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy.”
Sounds like Newt Gingrich, right? Or maybe Ronald Reagan? Guess again. Those words were uttered in 1935 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and they serve as a reminder of how the welfare state has expanded beyond anyone’s expectations.
The backdrop to the expansion of FDR’s safety net, and the multiple shortcomings found in government-run welfare policy, are among the subjects covered in James Payne’s Overcoming Welfare: Expecting More from the Poor—and from Ourselves. Payne works from the idea that nearly all welfare programs, whether public or private, rest on the false premise that the problems of the needy stem from a lack of money. Payne believes what is needed is not more dollars but more “expectant giving”—asking something from welfare recipients in exchange for benefits received.
Payne, like most people who write about welfare policy, has a tendency to get bogged down in mind-numbing philosophical, historical, and statistical discussions. And much of his material will be familiar to those who have followed the national welfare debate of the past 15 years, or who have read the writings of conservative reform advocates such as Charles Murray. But Payne accomplishes something that few other writers about welfare ever do: he spends time visiting homeless shelters, and even living with the poor. His accounts of these times are the most compelling sections of the book.
In Sacramento, a shelter staffer tells him, “We have no requirements, no expectations. We don’t expect people to be in treatment programs or attend certain meetings in order to be fed and to receive services here.” Payne finds that this laissez-faire approach has prompted the shelter to undergo three expansions, with multiple services offered, ranging from free food and medical care to facilities for sports and card games. “It was almost like a country club,” observes Payne, “except one thing was very wrong. The people were very unattractive: ungroomed, unmannerly, dejected.”
In Dallas, Payne visits the Industrial Labor Service Corporation. The ILS is not only the city’s largest employer of temporary manual laborers, but also a shelter where laborers must live if they want to be given daily work. The shelter charges five dollars a night, and though many of the 180 men who stay there are ex-convicts, it is still quite safe. Lights go out at 10 p.m. and come on again at 4 a.m. Jobs are parceled out each morning on a first-come, first-served basis, rewarding those who are the most motivated.
Payne contrasts ILS, a private, for-profit corporation, with the Dallas Youth Services Corps, a government-funded program that serves a similar constituency. While ILS takes no government money and generates enough revenues to pay a combined $1.4 million in federal, state, and local taxes, DYSC loses $500,000 annually and serves just 18 people. In Payne’s telling, the problem with programs like DYSC is that they provide a crutch that eases the burden of dysfunctional behavior.
The hope that one derives from Payne’s account of his time with ILS contrasts with the dim outlook he presents almost everywhere else. Government officials come in for much of the blame (more on that shortly), but Payne also pinpoints a frequently-overlooked culprit that may ultimately be responsible for the most welfare-related damage of all: America’s prosperity.
Up until about two centuries ago, the poverty of donors was a natural barrier against any widespread tendency toward sympathetic giving. People lived on the brink of starvation, and almost everyone lacked the bare essentials of life. Even having a fork or spoon was considered a luxury. So although people might have been disposed to give handouts to the needy, they didn’t have all that much to give.
As Payne points out, the rising tide of wealth has made it easier not just for individuals to soothe their guilty consciences by giving handouts to the needy, it’s also created a huge pool of revenues available to government for redistribution. But this, says Payne, has created “the great paradox of our age—poverty amid plenty.” He notes that “the problems of poverty—unemployment, homelessness, addiction, abandoned children—increase along with the growth in income.”
The nexus between wealth and ill-advised welfare policies might not be so strong if the government officials presiding over the tax revenues appreciated the harm done by supposedly well-intentioned social spending. Consider the case of Peter Edelman, who in Bill Clinton’s first term held a senior position at the Department of Health and Human Services, with responsibility for federal welfare policy. When President Clinton signed the welfare bill two years ago, Edelman and a few other HHS officials resigned. But after the election, Edelman wrote an 8,300-word cover story for The Atlantic Monthly in which he spelled out his many complaints with the new welfare law. It was a passionate, intelligent article, but in the penultimate paragraph, Edelman reveals his true colors: “[M]uch of what we have done in the name of welfare is more appropriately a subject for disability policy.”
This sentiment, which clearly reflects the thinking of many social workers, captures what’s been wrong with the public welfare system for at least the past 30 years. For as Payne points out, “calling welfare recipients ‘functionally disabled’ people who ‘can’t make it’ undermines their morale and motivation—and helps ensure that they will never make it on their own.” Indeed, it overlooks the basic fact that many, if not most, of those receiving welfare benefits are capable of caring for themselves, and are anything but “disabled.”
Payne covers other valuable territory in Overcoming Welfare, but more emphasis should have been given to the real news in today’s world of welfare: the effect of the 1996 welfare law. For in the year after the law was signed, there were a whopping 1.7 million fewer people on the welfare rolls than the year before—the largest such one-year decline in American history. The strength of the economy is a partial explanation for the reduced caseloads. But with work requirements, and time limits, welfare suddenly doesn’t look so attractive to its potential recipients. As Payne repeatedly makes clear, there’s no reason this should be a surprise. But the fact that it took so long for Washington to relearn what FDR spoke to more than 60 years ago ranks as one of the great social-policy failures in American history.
Matthew Rees is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard in Washington.