History and welfare


PRESIDENT Clinton may have been a Yale man and a Rhodes scholar, but his plan to "end welfare as we know it" shows he is a poor student of history and public policy.

Nearly 30 years ago Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a member of President Johnson's administration, wrote a report entitled "The Negro Family: A Case for National Action." In it he described black female-headed households as pathological and symptomatic of urban decay. The report was criticized widely as being both racist and ill-informed.

Yet President Clinton has ignored this history lesson, and his long-awaited proposal to reform welfare is eerily reminiscent of Mr. Moynihan's 1965 report. Both dodge the core issue of poverty and blame the poor for their own suffering. Both indict the behavior of poor people, absentee fathers and supposedly inept or irresponsible mothers for perpetuating a cycle of poverty. And both fail to consider the crucial causes of poverty: a recessionary economy, the erosion of public education and the downsizing of major industry.

Instead of fighting poverty, Mr. Clinton wants to rehabilitate the poor. His main objectives are to get welfare recipients into the work force and curb out-of-wedlock births. But this public-policy "solution" assumes laziness and promiscuity are the "problem" -- an assumption based more on myths and stereotypes than on real facts and figures.

For example, Mr. Clinton's plan will cut welfare after two years. But this presumes that a majority of welfare recipients have chosen welfare over work as a way of life. Statistics don't show that: Currently, 70 percent of recipients are off welfare within two years.

For those unable to find private-sector employment in two years, Mr. Clinton promises public-sector jobs. But hundreds of thousands of low-paying, temporary, dead-end jobs are no substitute for real employment opportunities. They will serve merely as a buffer between the welfare check and the homeless shelter.

Mr. Clinton's goal to curb out-of-wedlock births suffers from similarly erroneous logic, namely that young women -- disproportionately African American -- are having children out of wedlock simply to collect a welfare check. However, welfare doesn't even bring a young mother to the poverty line.

Some conservatives want to eliminate welfare altogether for the mothers of so-called illegitimate children, putting the kids in orphanages or foster homes. Such callous proposals reflect how a rigidly defined morality has become the litmus test for whether poor people -- particularly poor women -- deserve our empathy and our help.

The message: If you abstain from sex outside marriage, work hard for little pay, are a perfect parent and manage a frugal and meticulous household, only then do you deserve a little help from the government when you are down on your luck.

Barbara Ransby teaches history at DePaul University in Chicago.

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