'50 welfare systems' -- not a bad idea

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HAVRE DE GRACE -- "The last thing we need in our society," said Kweisi Mfume earlier this month, "is 50 welfare systems."

The NAACP president expressed this judgment during a luncheon speech to a convention of editorial writers, who were gathered in Baltimore to party it up and exchange ideas about how to tell their readers what to think. For all I know, all of them agreed with Mr. Mfume, who is a talented and sometimes passionate speaker.

At any rate, none of those present was rude enough, or perhaps awake enough, to leap up and challenge him -- to ask why, with the federal welfare system an acknowledged catastrophe, it wouldn't make much more sense to let each state devise its own approach.

But it's probably not fair to pummel the editorial writers for their passivity. They may not have even recognized the presence of an Issue in Mr. Mfume's remarks, what with the positions on welfare currently espoused by the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates having become virtually indistinguishable.

Done that, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole seem to be saying, almost in unison. Welfare has now been reformed, thanks to the leadership of the (fill in the blank) Party. Now let's get on to other things.

Wide variance

Despite Mr. Mfume's disdain and the editorial writers' disinterest, a state-by-state approach to welfare makes sense. For one thing, the needs of the states vary tremendously, and a standardized policy that works in one jurisdiction is just about guaranteed not to work in another.

Some recipients of AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) benefits use the money as a buffer against hard times, and get off public support in a year or two. But 75 percent of those who receive these benefits are hard-core, and remain on public support for five years or more. Those in the first category are scattered across the nation; those in the second are much more concentrated.

Despite all those network-news features about the rural poor, long-lasting welfare dependency is a disproportionately urban problem. This means it's much more of a concern in states with big cities. Vermont and Nevada, respectively, have about 6,500 and 8,000 children receiving long-term welfare benefits; their neighbors, New York and California, have about 300,000 and 850,000.

Mr. Mfume and other defenders of federalized welfare take the view that if there are defects, they should be fixed in Washington. They also believe it's sound policy to force the same programs that have failed in big states on small states with a very different environment.

Maybe they're right. But the presidential campaign to the contrary, not everybody thinks so.

In a lecture a year or so ago, the social scientist James Q. Wilson set out three precepts on welfare. The first is that the primary goal of society ought to be to save its children, and the second is that nobody really knows from experience how to do that. So far, so good. Hardly anyone, even Kweisi Mfume, is likely to argue with those.

Mr. Wilson's third precept is a little touchier. It is this. "The federal government cannot have a meaningful family policy for the nation, and it ought not to try. Not only does it not know and cannot learn from 'experts' what to do; whatever it thinks it ought to do, it will try to do in the worst possible way: uniformly, systematically, politically and ignorantly."

This is largely because federal welfare policy is created less by Congress, representing the nation, than by advocacy groups such as Mr. Mfume's NAACP. These groups, which need ideological confrontation to excite their financial supporters and expand their membership, want policy to remain adversarial. And they want it formed in Washington, by people they have made it their business to know.

Evaporating issue

In addition to welfare, another subject that seems to have evaporated from the atmosphere of the presidential campaign over the last few weeks is that of gun control. Any differences of opinion between the president and his challenger on this matter are apparently so inconsequential as not to be worth pursuing. Both favor banning certain weapons, it seems, but not all firearms.

The president, after all, is an avid duck hunter -- or at least has been photographed wearing a camouflage outfit and carrying what was undeniably a very dead duck, reportedly the harvest of his own skilled wingshooting. He surely wouldn't want to do anything that would ever prevent other knowledgeable sportsmen from going afield with weapons of their choice.

In that regard, a duck-hunting acquaintance has called to my attention the presidential remarks last June 21 to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Even after the gun ban he backed took effect, Mr. Clinton noted with pride, everyone "who wants to go duck hunting is still hunting with the same rifle."

And probably the same faithful Labrador pussycat, too.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 10/24/96

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