“It was a Rubicon, and we’ve crossed it.” That was how leading New Democrat Will Marshall recently described his party’s 1996 about-face on welfare to The American Prospect. The fitting, less congratulatory comparison of Vandals pouring into Rome evidently never struck Marshall, but perhaps it should have.
The fact is, when the Democrats appropriated long-held conservative ideas on welfare policy, they helped initiate a new era in American social policy. Years before the key reforms passed, Marshall wrote, “Welfare’s perverse economics make the system a trap, not a safety net.” And, “Few would deny that public assistance offers [recipients] a means of support that functions as an alternative to work and marriage.”
This was standard conservative fare—until the 1990s, that is. Today, venues for serious liberal thought like The American Prospect or The New Republic have published scarcely anything challenging the new welfare consensus, because they’ve adopted it as their own. The invaders have hastily assimilated, joining the ranks of their rivals—all in less than a decade.
Ending Welfare as We Know It compiles the history of this process of assimilation into one volume. The book is a useful chronology of the developments that culminated in the 1996 Personal Responsibility Act, the legislation that, in President Clinton’s tired phrase, ended welfare as we know it.
Weaver offers helpful summaries of the most important issues in welfare: the failure of earlier reform attempts, the maneuverings on the Hill and elsewhere in government that produced reform, and the role of the earned income tax credit in helping reform succeed. Even the role of policy research and the wonkery of the think-tank underworld are discussed in considerable detail. As welfare reform turns five this August, look for Ending Welfare as We Know It to be a major source for various retrospectives—a limited victory for Weaver and probably short of his ambitions for the book, but a constructive accomplishment nonetheless.
The trouble with this book is not the research, but the argument. The book is short on original ideas; by approaching the topic through rational choice analysis, Weaver dodges questions about the substance of reform, opting instead for a value-free look at the political wheeling and dealing that shuffled the bill through the legislative process. As to whether reform was good—for welfare recipients, for the electorate, for society as a whole—Weaver has little to say.
We learn, for instance, that politicians “face hard choices because their political opponents work hard to make their choices as unappealing as possible.” Well, amen to that—choices are always difficult when one’s opponents maneuver for maximum advantage. Weaver won’t have us forget it. But what does it tell us specifically about welfare? Not much. Weaver’s argument applies to just about anything, signifying as much about soccer or bowling as it does social policy.
Rather than concede the limitations of this approach, the author carries it through to the banal end. The book’s major summary points are simply vacuous: “Making difficult choices from diverse alternatives—sometimes good choices, often hard choices or bad choices—is what politics is all about.” Again, true enough, but what specifically does it teach us about welfare? And what is Weaver’s grand conclusion? “A final conclusion is that choices have consequences; they can never be undone.” Well, didn’t welfare reform prove that choices—60 years’ worth of New Deal-inspired choices—can be undone?
It did, but Weaver’s agnostic approach to welfare prevents him from acknowledging as much. Because the author explicitly refuses to place welfare reform in the context of a political science of welfare provision—a controversial subject, to be sure—he is confined to groping in the dark.
Is welfare dependency-creating and corrupting, or is it primarily poverty-reducing and disparity-correcting? Is it subject to runaway, politically-driven expansion, or can it be controlled and efficient? These questions matter most in the welfare debates, but they go untreated here. And it’s not as if they are new questions: Tocqueville pondered them more than a century and a half ago. He arrived at something of an iron law on welfare: that public assistance and “pauperdom” exist in a symbiotic relationship. That relationship is key to understanding welfare politics and constitutes the single most important element missing from Weaver’s study.
Brendan Conway is assistant editor of The National Interest.