The premise of the welfare reform legislation of 1996 was that people who need public assistance should be willing to work. Congress pushed governors, kicking and screaming, in that direction, requiring states to cut their welfare rolls in half in relatively short order or lose some federal monies. This was moral reform carried out for pragmatic reasons. Another moral reform was encouraged—the restoration of married family life—but without any performance demands on the states. Not surprisingly, outside of a few scattered efforts, most state governments attempted nothing.
The 1996 welfare reform initiative was thus a combination of two key elements in helping the poor: moral reform and material assistance. (It is rarely mentioned that the formula for transferring money to the states was even more generous in the 1996 reform bill than previously.) This wonderful book, Joel Schwartz’s Fighting Poverty with Virtue, recounts the competition for dominance between these two elements throughout the nation’s history. Look for this debate to come to the fore in the near future as the nation revisits the question of reforming the safety net to include faith-based initiatives.
The book is clearly written, a good read, and meticulously researched (endnotes, index, and references take up a third of the book), and it has already generated some buzz among policy analysts. Schwartz is a widely published political philosopher who has worked at the National Endowment for the Humanities and taught at the universities of Michigan, Toronto, and Virginia, as well as being executive editor of The Public Interest. (He is presently a contributing editor to Philanthropy.)
Schwartz tracks the vagaries of public support for five virtues critical to minimal success in avoiding destitution and achieving economic self-sufficiency: diligence, sobriety, saving, cultivation of family life, and cultivation of knowledge. Over the centuries the lessons taught by reformers have been remarkably similar, from the wisdom principles taught to the poor by Joseph Tuckerman and William Channing in Boston in the early 1800s, to the summary social science conclusions of Robert Reischauer, Alice Rivlin, Charles Murray, and Larry Mead in the late 1980s: complete your education; get married as an adult and stay married; have children after marriage, not before; work and stay employed, even at low wages; and avoid addictions to drugs, alcohol, or other vices.
Schwartz also tracks the ever changing, ever present role of religion, from the original Boston Unitarians, fired with a belief in the natural perfectibility of man through the successful efforts (minimally described) of the Irish Catholic hierarchy in achieving an almost miraculous turnaround of the huge Irish underclass of the mid 1800s. This achievement has yet to be repeated by any other religious leadership, and only Governor Tommy Thompson’s recent “miracle” in Wisconsin is a secular rival. President Bush has promised to revive religious involvement in tackling this issue, forming a new White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. So the theme continues to play out, rooted as it is in the dual nature of man, a creature of body and soul.
In the later 1800s some advocates for the poor, such as Jane Addams and Walter Rauschenbusch, tired of the economic and political system that engendered such vast numbers of needy people. Many such critics of moral reform believed that the problem lay not in the poor but in the rich and in the structures of exploitation they erected as inherent parts of their drive for riches. Out of this critique grew the tradition of blaming not the victim, but the “system” that victimized.
With increasing acceptance of this view, the modern welfare state emerged and continued to expand. By the 1960s and 1970s rates of welfare tripled among certain segments of the population and social workers saw their job as getting people onto welfare, not off of it. These gargantuan government efforts at a material solution have barely dented the nation’s levels of welfare dependence, and fueled a return to requiring the virtue of diligence in the welfare reform package of 1996.
Our elites will be the troublesome obstacle to the next attainable level of reform, a return to the virtues of marriage and family life. For instance, the recent book The Case for Marriage was cast aside during peer review by Harvard University Press despite the impeccable scholarship of its authors, Linda Waite, a world-class sociologist from the University of Chicago, and Maggie Gallagher, a recognized scholar on marriage. On publication the book was dutifully attacked by the New York Times Review of Books.
Actions such as these led political scientist Mark Hughes to quip, “We are an underclass society, not a society with an ‘underclass,’” and James Q. Wilson to opine, “Theories that present single parent families as desirable alternative lifestyles were not invented by single mothers but by intellectuals who thought that they were removing a stigma from the oppressed.” (Trenchant quotes such as these crop up continuously throughout the book, helping to make it the great read that it is.)
Today, every informed scholar of the Right or Left would agree that the material poverty of the early 1800s has been licked by the generous (some would say indulgent) social welfare state made possible by our advanced economy. But, in a situation strikingly similar to the early 1800s, a destitution or behavioral poverty remains among our poor, now called the underclass. The Biblical pronouncement, “The poor you shall always have with you,” is thus given its unique and humbling 21st century configuration.
Patrick Fagan is the William H. G. FitzGerald Research Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues at the Heritage Foundation.