OK scratch welfare, then what?

ALBANY, N.Y. — Albany, N.Y. -- THE REPUBLICANS who now control Congress have offered up their get-tough welfare plan: No welfare for unwed mothers under 18; a five-year lifetime limit on collecting welfare benefits.

A crowd of moderate Democrats who call themselves the Progressive Policy Institute then came up with a plan that calls for, among other things, giving unwed teen-age mothers welfare benefits only if they stay in school or agree to job training.


Clearly, both parties have been reading the polls -- not to mention the election results. And both parties are responding to the profound reality that middle-class people, overwhelmingly, are fed up with the poor.

The Roper polling organization reports that in 1964 three in four people believed that government should take "primary responsibility" for eradicating poverty. Only one in three people feels that way today.


With the Soviet Union just a memory, the fundamental question now separating the American left and right seems to be this: Who's to blame for the increasing rates of crime, violence, illegitimacy and antisocial behavior associated in large part with poor people?

To what extent is that society's fault? To what extent is it the fault of the poor themselves? Despite the shouts and slogans from both sides, this is the essential divide in American politics.

Nobody -- not on the left, and not on the right -- is particularly pleased about generation after generation of idle poor living off the labor of others. And nobody is thrilled that the poor -- to a substantially greater degree than the non-poor people paying the bills -- tend to engage in behavior destructive to themselves and to society in general.

L But how can government get people off welfare and into jobs?

For several decades, policy-makers have argued over whether to use the carrot or the stick. Republicans tend to hammer the poor with sticks like benefit limitations and conduct requirements. Democrats have offered carrots like racial preferences and free education -- although they, too, seem increasingly willing to swing a stick or two these days.

Neither side, however, has the faintest clue as to how to end welfare. Each side knows -- although you'll seldom hear anybody admit it -- that the economy hasn't produced enough jobs to go around, even for people with training.

That's why one in four college graduates works in a job that doesn't require a college degree. That's why one in 10 white high school graduates didn't hold down a job last year, compared to one in 50 a quarter century ago. And often the jobs available for either the trained or untrained aren't close enough to poor neighborhoods to make them practical alternatives to welfare.

Philip Harvey, a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City, has estimated that -- at a current unemployment rate of 8.2 per cent -- the five New York City boroughs have jobs available for only one in seven unemployed workers. That ratio diminishes as the unemployment rate goes down; it goes up as the unemployment rate rises.


The national unemployment rate in October was 5.4 per cent. Extending Mr. Harvey's formula -- and that of New York State Labor Department statisticians -- you end up with a national ratio of more than four unemployed workers for every available job.

Bear in mind, too, that this ratio deals only with people counted as unemployed -- an artificially low figure. That raw number actually is lower than the number of men in prison or on parole or probation. The situation becomes vastly worse when the numbers of welfare recipients, "discouraged" workers, and people in part-time jobs are added.

Don't let anybody kid you on this. If every adult welfare recipient is miraculously trained to earn a living in the next six months and then we just pull the plug on the entire system, poor people still aren't going to go out and get jobs that aren't there.

Government, unfortunately, offers private employers no real incentive to create jobs. In theory, employers could be offered lavish tax credits to create jobs, but government has dug itself so deep a hole that it can't afford to give up the revenue.

Economists fight every day about government's true capability to create long-term jobs.

Economy measures can help, but they add up to only nickels and dimes in the total of government expenditures.


Government's real failing isn't a welfare system that creates dependency -- although that certainly represents a failure of monumental proportions. No, government's real shame has been its failure to create true full employment through trade, tax and regulatory policies.

So, even with all the national frustration with the poor and the ills that accompany poverty, neither Bill Clinton nor Newt Gingrich is likely to end welfare as we know it anytime soon.

Politicians will rant and perhaps make a difference around the edges of the system, but nobody really is willing to let the poor starve.

And without enough jobs out there to support them, that's pretty much what it would come down to.


Dan Lynch wrote this for the Albany Times Union.