Welfare reform may fall to the enemy within


WASHINGTON -- Most Americans think when Congress passes a law and the president signs, that's it -- the law of the land has been decided, and everyone has to abide by it. But

what if the bureaucrats who implement the law decide they don't like it? Can they undermine the law by the way they carry it out?

You bet they can. A case in point: Congress recently ended the entitlement to welfare, handed assistance programs to the states, and required some welfare recipients to work. But that doesn't mean welfare reform is going to happen, at least the way Congress thinks. Why? Because those carrying out Congress' orders -- America's 600,000 social workers -- bitterly oppose the new reforms. They are in a position to undermine the program in a number of ways.

Think about it: The social workers who administer the new policies can fail to be inspiring mentors to welfare recipients who need to be motivated and guided to find jobs. Instead of urging them to take responsibility for their lives and get to work, social workers can encourage whining and blaming others. Instead of chiding welfare recipients for bad habits and urging constructive change, social workers can excuse their dysfunctional lifestyles.

And social workers can undermine reform by overusing exemptions to new requirements. The new welfare-reform legislation is laden with escape clauses that permit case workers to exempt clients from requirements on ground such as hardship or family needs. By applying these exemptions liberally, social workers can defeat the aim of the legislation.

In Michigan, for example, social workers already have undermined the state's policy of requiring unwed teen mothers to live with responsible adults -- simply by exempting the teens in question. In Ingham County, 74 of 85 indigent teen-age mothers under age 18 were allowed to keep their welfare checks and their independent lifestyles because social workers decided that adult supervision would jeopardize their "emotional and physical well-being."

This is in line with teaching at the various schools of social work, which award 11,000 bachelor's and 13,000 master's degrees yearly. Today's social workers are steeped in the idea that any kind of suffering or being in need is wrong.

Even the anticipation of deprivation, which can motivate all sorts of constructive choices -- from getting up in the morning to look for a job to avoiding unwed pregnancy or drug and alcohol abuse -- is overlooked in favor of coddling and handouts. "Human suffering is undesirable and should be prevented, or at least alleviated, whenever possible," declares Herbert Bisno in "The Philosophy of Social Work."

Of course, since neediness is always wrong, filling someone's needs is always right. The "code of ethics" of the National Association of Social Workers defines the social worker as a giveaway agent in sweeping terms: "The social worker should act to ensure that all persons have access to the resources, services and opportunities which they require." In other words, instead of urging people to obtain what they require through their own energy and perseverance, social workers are instructed to give it to them.

In the textbook "Social Welfare: A Response to Human Need" work is disparaged. "The belief that each person should be responsible for meeting his or her own needs" is labeled "rugged individualism" and dismissed: "This situation is neither possible in contemporary society nor desirable in terms of optimal human growth and development," the book says.

Resistance to reform

Inculcated with such attitudes, it is little wonder that social workers have resisted the new welfare reforms, which demand constructive behavior of clients. The social workers' association has opposed all efforts to trim welfare benefits and require work. It warmly endorsed President Clinton for re-election on the strength of his veto of the welfare-reform bill in late 1995, then was furious when he signed a similar bill a few months later.

Consequently, state officials are discovering they need a new breed of employee to handle the new reforms. They are looking for case workers who will urge clients to stop acting helpless and who see denying benefits as part of the therapy of breaking dependency.

California's director of social services, Eloise Anderson, says social workers are "the wrong group of people" to deal with the poor. "They're running out and talking to people and going [she mimics a pitying tone] 'Oh dear, something's wrong with you? Oh let me help you.' It's just wrong. The question is, 'What do you need to get on your feet?' "

In places where demanding programs are in place, administrators are turning to employees with non-social-work backgrounds, and even to private firms, to manage the caseload. In Riverside, California, -- which has the state's most successful workfare program -- social workers are "a nonexistent classification" among case workers, according to spokesman John Rodgers.

Until the social-work establishment rethinks the attitudes and philosophy that have brought them, and the welfare system they have operated, into disrepute, social workers will continue to do a disservice to those welfare reform is supposed to help: the poor.

This essay by James L. Payne, of the Heritage Foundation, is adapted from his article in Policy Review: The Journal of American Citizenship.

Pub Date: 12/11/96

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