Welfare as We Know (and Have Known) It

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- President Clinton is again talking about ending welfare "as we know it." That pledge, first made during his campaign, is one of the issues he used to forge an image for himself as a different kind of Democrat.

To end welfare as we know it, we must first understand welfare as we have known it.


President Lyndon Johnson's administration took welfare and spun it out of control. His economic advisers warned in 1964 that if the federal government did not act, the poverty rate would jump to 13 percent by 1980. By 1980, after tens of billions of dollars had been spent to improve life for the poor, the poverty rate was 13 percent. Clearly, more welfare as we have known it is not the solution to poverty. It may have been a major cause.

Two Republican governors, John Engler of Michigan and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, have taken the initiative on welfare reform. President Clinton could do himself some good if he were to emulate them.


Governor Engler announced the end of welfare as Michigan had known it in October 1991. He abolished general assistance for single, childless, able-bodied adults. There were howls of protest, but by last April, more than one-third of those cut off from public assistance had found jobs. Those with physical or mental handicaps were transferred off welfare into other government programs, such as disability payments, which they should have been receiving all along. Private organizations in Michigan quickly stepped in to help the neediest of those who were unable to find work.

Governor Thompson has gone a step further. With the permission of the Clinton administration, he imposed a two-year limit on welfare benefits for indigent Wisconsin families with children. Adults who receive welfare will be required to work for the money, which can include job training for those unable to find immediate employment.

Welfare as we have come to know it is one of the illegitimate children of the '60s mentality of government as our keeper. Instead of the father as breadwinner, government has become the bread provider, eliminating the need of a man around the house. Federal subsidies removed incentives for people to get married should a single woman become pregnant.

pTC As University of Texas professor Marvin Olasky has written in his book, "The Tragedy of American Compassion," marriage was the single most important anti-poverty program in existence prior to the 1960s: "So strong was support for marriage that -- before the revolution of the 1960s -- an unmarried woman who became pregnant usually would get married; 85 percent of teen-aged mothers who did not want to be married had a second acceptable option: placing a child for adoption. Fewer than one of every ten pregnant women chose single parenthood, for they feared social ostracism and lacked institutional and financial support. . . . One result of the marriage/adoption emphasis was that children had fathers living with them during their early years."

But as government's role in the lives of single mothers increased, marital obligations declined. With the advent of abortion and no-fault divorce, marriage and adoption came to be thought of by many as the least desirable of all options.

The welfare system limits social mobility. People feel less compelled to go where the jobs are because government checks show up automatically in their mailboxes, reducing ambition and risk-taking.

Ending government subsidies for anyone able to work will do at least two things. First, it will force people to find jobs, and that will benefit them and the taxpayers. Second, it will again increase private philanthropic support for the truly needy. When the slothful and lazy have been purged from the welfare roles, the public will then see those in real need as deserving of assistance.

As Professor Olasky has written: "Individual giving as a proportion of personal income dropped 13 percent between 1960 and 1976. The proportion of philanthropic giving devoted to social welfare declined from 15 percent to 6 percent. By the mid-1970s, governments spent about 10 times as much on social services as nonprofit agencies, and the nonprofit agencies themselves received half their revenues from governments."


Changing welfare as we have known it will require a changed attitude about personal responsibility and accountability. President Clinton is uniquely positioned among modern Democrats to lead a revolution in welfare reform. He will be tempted to place form over substance. If he resists that temptation, real welfare reform could be a hallmark of his presidency and a benefit to the whole country.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.