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The welfare reform issue is rooted in social values; Scholars, books and policies are returning to basic American principles.


If you can work for a living, you should support yourself. And, if you work full-time, you should earn a living wage. These two bedrock beliefs one seemingly conservative, the other liberal, sum up what most Americans think about the intricate, intertwined, and emotionally-charged issues of work, wages and welfare. And they explain why public policies are being shaped by two trends enjoying broad public support but espoused by political leaders from different ends of the ideological spectrum.

In 1996, Congress passed and President Clinton reluctantly signed into law welfare reform legislation that ends the entitlement to public assistance, moves millions off the welfare rolls, and shifts responsibility for most programs to the states. Spurred by this new policy, state and local governments are trying out tough-love policies of all kinds, from workfare requirements to job training and child care assistance for recipients striving to find and hold jobs.

But, at the same time, Clinton and the Congress have raised the minimum wage and increased tax credits for the working poor. And, in communities across the country, with Baltimore leading the way, cities and counties are adopting living wage ordinances raising pay scales for workers for government contractors.

These policies reflect Americans sympathy for the working poor and their antipathy to programs perceived as supporting, or even encouraging, such self-destructive behaviors as refusing to work or having children outside of marriage. And that is why debates about welfare reform and the living wage are inevitably arguments about values as well as dollars.

Recently, two scholarly books by small publishers have offered valuable insights to the moral as well as economic arguments about how public policies can encourage and reward work. And they also provide rare glimpses of academic authorities and public policy professionals grappling with public sentiments that simultaneously demand that the poor work for a living and support their struggles for a living wage.

"Work and Welfare" by Robert Solow and edited by Amy Gutman (Princeton University Press, 112 pages, $19.95) presents a series of lectures at Princeton shortly after the enactment of the 1996 welfare reform.

A prominent economist, Solow is so contemptuous of the new federal law that he declares, "I cannot bear to write down the fatuous title that Congress gave it." Yet Solow himself supports the law's basic objectives, explaining: "My main point ... is ... that the total or partial replacement of unearned welfare benefits by earned wages is the right solution to the problem of accommodating those values in the kind of economy that we have. Welfare recipients will feel better because they are exhibiting self-reliance. Taxpayers will feel better not merely because less is demanded of their limited altruism but also because they can see that their altruism is not being exploited."

To achieve these ends, Solow supports a comprehensive program of remedial education, job training, child care assistance, tax credits, and guaranteed health insurance for people moving from welfare to work. It is a program much like the plan Clinton himself offered in 1994 to redeem his 1992 campaign promise to end welfare as we know it, and it failed to pass a Congress controlled by his fellow Democrats.

While this book is about policy not politics, it would have been worthwhile for Solow and other contributors to this volume to explore why the original Clinton plan as well as similar proposals have mostly failed to win majority support on the national level.

To be sure, many conservatives oppose these kinder, gentler welfare reforms because, as Solow explains, they cost more money than simply maintaining poor people on a dwindling dole, much less cutting off their benefits entirely. And, as recently as 1994, there were still some die-hard liberals who opposed work requirements of almost any kind, even when coupled with such supports as child care and job training.

Of the other contributors, the conservative social thinker Gertrude Himmelfarb comes the closest to the caricature of the hard-nosed conservative who would sooner offer the dependent poor a lecture on individual responsibility than help with their health coverage. Writing admiringly of English social policies from the Elizabethan era to the Victorian age, in "Work and Welfare" she retroactively endorses poorhouses for those who are able but unwilling to work but has little to say about how to help those who work hard but have trouble making ends meet.

But another academic, the economist Glen Loury, offers more insight into the difficulties in designing programs to help welfare recipients join the work force: Politically, it will prove difficult over the long run to limit such benefits as expanded wage subsidies for low-wage workers or continuing child-care provision to only the (ex)-welfare population. Loury's shrewd observation echoes the view of the urbanologist William Julius Wilson, who argues elsewhere that the best way to help the poor is to promote universal programs, such as health insurance and child care for working families across-the-boards.

One such program is the minimum wage nationally and living wage initiatives locally, both of which tend usually to have the support of 70 percent of the respondents to public opinion surveys. In "The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy" (The New Press, 244 pages, $22.50), the economists Robert Pollin and Stephanie Luce present the drive for city and county ordinances as a grassroots movement with the potential to revive public concern for the plight of the poor, re-energize the labor unions, and challenge conservative social and economic policies from the local to national levels.

All this is a tall order, but living-wage ordinances are winning support throughout urban America. The movement began in Baltimore, where an inner-city church group, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, noticed an increase in the number of people using its soup kitchens and later learned than most were working for low wages. Working with political leaders and labor unions, the ministers promoted an ordinance that went into effect in 1995 and now later this year will provide a minimum hourly wage of $7.70 for employees of municipal contractors.

Similar laws have since been enacted in Boston, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and other major cities, with some raising wages for workers at companies receiving public subsidies, such as special tax abatements, as well as government contracts. Studying the ordinances' effects, Pollin and Luce contend that most contractors can absorb the pay increases and that businesses and governments all benefit from a more stable and better-motivated work force. And, with more money in their pockets, workers wage increases have ripple effects throughout local economies, while the local welfare burden decreases.

All this is classic liberal-labor trickle-up economics, but with special importance in this era of cutting back welfare benefits and contracting-out public services. At a time when the working poor must now compete with folks forced off the welfare rolls and cities are searching for ways to save money on public services, living wage ordinances are one small way to shore up the wages of those who are already hardpressed to pay their bills.

In different ways, both books could be dismissed as impractical "Welfare and Work" for emphasizing abstract issues, "The Living Wage" for suggesting that the movement it chronicles might eventually be able to enact an explicitly redistributive economic agenda including wage-price controls.

But both books raise questions our leaders too often ignore and call attention to a truth most Americans intuitively understand: The best way to encourage poor people to choose work over welfare is to make sure that nobody who works for a living has to live in poverty.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Clinton from 1992 through 1994. A visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and author of "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties," he was on the staff of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) from 1974 through 1984.

Pub Date: 01/24/99

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