FOR THE FIRST TWO DECADES after the inception of the Great Society, the liberal position on welfare was as solid as the Berlin Wall. If you talked social policy with program officers at the leading liberal foundations or with officials of the American Public Welfare Association, you would be told that the poor were victims of social forces they were powerless to change, and that the best way to help the poor was to enact massive increases in federal and state welfare budgets. Pour enough money into the inner cities, we were told, and eventually they would be every bit as nice as Scarsdale or Chevy Chase.
The traditional liberal position on welfare has, of course, crumbled. Twenty years ago, if you argued that welfare mired the poor in dependency, encouraged the growth of single motherhood, and ensured the continued decline of what were once called slums, you were dismissed as a crank. Today, while conservatives have not exactly managed to end the welfare state, the compelling analyses of Charles Murray, James Q. Wilson, James Coleman, and Marvin Olasky have gone some distance toward making the conventional liberal position on welfare indefensible.
Which leaves it to Lisbeth B. Schorr, a lecturer in social medicine at Harvard, to supply a more defensible rationale. In Common Purpose, Schorr has written a very foundation-centered book (paid for, as she notes in her acknowledgments, by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Joyce Foundation, and “an idyllic month at the Rockefeller Foundation’s study center in Bellagio, Italy, added significant momentum to the book’s progress.”) Among the foundations mentioned in Common Purpose are the Annie E. Casey, Edna McConnell Clark, Danforth, Enterprise, Ford, Robert Wood Johnson, McKnight, Charles Stewart Mott, Riley, Rockefeller, and Surdna Foundations; the Carnegie Corporation of New York; the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation; and the Pew Charitable Trusts. If you’re interested in a study of what liberal foundations think about social policy, Schorr does a good job of digesting reams of reports and providing a thorough bibliography.
Most of the time, Schorr approves of these organizations, despite occasional criticisms (she gently scores foundations for “overemphasizing innovation for its own sake and ignoring implementation on a significant scale”). Like many conservatives, the author casts a harsher eye on the role of the state in social policy—including education, welfare, and child protection, borrowing the analysis put forth in James Q. Wilson’s classic, Bureaucracy (1989), to show that government bureaucracies are rule-laden, cumbersome institutions that smother society in red tape and deny essential aid to the poor. Nor is she in favor of outside organizations with noble purposes descending on the inner city and wedging the poor into templates devised by bureaucrats in Washington, program officers in New York, or sociologists in Cambridge. Unlike most conservatives, however, she thinks that government agencies can do better.
For instance, Schorr believes that welfare agencies can be reformed to give caseworkers some discretion in administering aid. She also supports charter schools and other means of devolving power from central offices to principals and teachers (although she opposes all efforts to privatize social policy, including private school choice and contracting out welfare caseloads to for-profit enterprises).
Once people see that government actually can be reformed, Schorr believes, the public will have renewed enthusiasm for the welfare state and will support additional government aid to the poor. Successful reform, she believes, would “embrace the conservative tenet of personal responsibility and obligation while, at the same time, we embrace the liberal tenet that there are common purposes we cannot achieve without government. And we embrace simultaneously the nonpartisan tenet that if government doesn’t work, it must be made to work.”
Schorr provides many case studies to support her arguments, although most are either based on second-hand reporting by others or on visits she makes to nonprofits or to government agencies. Indeed, although Schorr’s book is about improving the lives of the poor, the voices of the poor are rarely heard. Thus, even if all of her evidence is true, at best Schorr can show that some welfare bureaucracies can, over a substantial period of time, become somewhat more flexible. She provides little evidence that these revitalized organizations can do a better job in freeing the poor from dependence on the state.
Moreover, in making her case, Schorr ignores two critical aspects of the welfare debate. The first is bureaucratic inertia—there are many organizations that would strenuously oppose a de-bureaucratized welfare state. Government unions (including the teachers’ unions) will vigorously resist any attempt to install reforms that will result in union members being sacked. Social workers will continue to insist that the only people truly qualified to help the poor have master’s degrees from accredited schools of social work. Central offices will strive to produce pointless regulations that hamper the abilities of principals and teachers to do their jobs. Schorr offers little evidence that these powerful groups can be persuaded to change their ways. Given that government has failed to “reinvent” itself despite numerous proddings from well-credentialed experts (remember the Grace Commission?), why should we believe that government can be successfully transformed this time?
Schorr also overlooks the critical role morality can play in poverty, and gives no evidence that social workers, however well-intentioned, can provide the moral or spiritual sustenance to prod the poor in the direction of spontaneous self-improvement. Convincing the poor that an activity—becoming addicted to illicit drugs, or having illegitimate children—is wrong or immoral is a job government does badly. Schorr occasionally mentions a faith-based charity favorably, but seems oblivious to the abilities of these groups to mend souls and transform lives.
Schorr is more thoughtful than most liberals, and Common Purpose is an important book. But the reason Schorr’s work is important is not in the solutions it offers, but in showing how far the debate over welfare has shifted.
Martin Morse Wooster is a visiting fellow at the Capital Research Center and an associate editor of The American Enterprise. His book, Should Foundationis Live Forever: The Question of Perpetuity, will be published by the Capital Research Center this spring.