President Clinton’s welfare reforms won’t work, because they are the solution to the wrong problem. A workfare program, such as the president favors, only makes sense if you assume that welfare is fundamentally an employment problem of young women. Just get these women into the workforce, goes the reasoning, and that in itself will serve to make them independent. Their new independence will kindle in them the other qualities needed to make them good mothers and, even beyond that, good citizens.
Put aside for now the question of whether the means the president favors will achieve the employment goals he seeks—whether workfare as the Clintonites imagine it will ever get many hard-core welfare mothers into real jobs or will instead turn out to be a dismal progression of training programs of the preparing-to-write-a-resume, preparing-to-go-to-a-job-interview variety, ending at last in a costly public jobs program whose clients will work as cynically and profitlessly as Moscow street sweepers under communism. The real point is this: the welfare problem isn’t about employment. It isn’t even about young women. It is, instead, about children and their welfare, realities ignored in the current welfare reform discussion. Listening to it, you can momentarily forget what an enormous price children often end up paying for the living their hard-core welfare mothers extract out of them. With the connivance of the system, many welfare children—when neglected, beaten, unimmunized, deprived of the moral and cognitive nurture that families normally provide small children—end up their parents’ exploited victims.
Instead of solving the problem, the administration’s outlined reform is the last gasp of a failed approach. Unintentionally, try as it may to cut through welfare’s Gordian knot, it leaves intact the basic assumptions in which the current problem is enmeshed. Because it continues to subordinate the interests of children to the supposed economic interests of their mothers, it won’t stop welfare from being a way of life. The trickle-down theory of nurture at its heart—the assumption that once the mothers are drawn into employment the children’s welfare is assured—won’t solve welfare’s central ill: that it helps perpetuate an almost hereditary underclass of individuals whose childhood in fatherless families, nurtured by women too young and unprepared to be good mothers, so often dooms them to unfulfilled, unsuccessful lives.
The right way to reform welfare is not to tinker at the edges of an exhausted paradigm that created the problem in the first place. Reformers need to rethink the issue anew, outside the con” fines of the old orthodoxy.
That orthodoxy came into being in the 1960s, as part of a reformulation of the nation’s most basic beliefs and values that it is only a slight exaggeration to think of as a cultural revolution. The reformulation took place in the name of two related liberations. First was a political liberation: a crusading effort to complete American democracy, to free the excluded Have-Nots, the poor and black, from marginalization. Out of that honorable impulse came developments ranging from the great 1964 Civil Rights Act to multicultural education to the National Welfare Rights Organization.
The second liberation was a personal one: an effort on the part of the Haves—by which I mean not the rich but the mainstream, the established—to achieve an inner deliverance from a sense of anxious, deadening conformity as organization men in grey flannel suits into a freer, more authentic, more spontaneous, more life-affirming, happier selfhood. Out of that impulse to escape from—or at least loosen—the limits of bourgeois discipline and morality came the sexual revolution and the counterculture.
Though these changes in the culture began with an elite, they rapidly diffused themselves into the college-going, newspaper-reading, TV-watching, popular-music-listening, church-attending portions of the population at large, as the explosion in the U.S. divorce rate beginning in the 1960s attests, to take only one example of how the new norms revolutionized behavior. Now the new norms radiate out from the most trivial expressions of our culture—from almost any perfume or underwear ad or popular song, for instance—as well as from the more official expressions, such as almost any federal social policy or almost any editorial in the New York Times.
Unfortunately for the worst-off, too many of the messages that came to them from the new culture only served to bind them more firmly to their poverty and marginality. The new culture devalued all the things you have to do to get out of poverty, like hard work at any job, and glamorized things that keep the poor poor and the marginal marginal, like careless promiscuity and “recreational” drug use. In the realm of public policy, it transformed the institutions—welfare prominent among them—that help shape the lives of the poor, so that they ended up degrading rather than uplifting the people they were intended to benefit.
And because of the moral fervor with which the new ideas are invested—because these ideas give many of the Haves, especially among the elite, their sense of moral worth, uniqueness, and justification—it has become too painful to admit what abysmal harm they inflict on the Have-Nots. So, even as the underclass became rooted and grew and deepened in degradation, the answer the new culture has given has been further doses of what was causing the problem in the first place, like pumping more gas into a flooded engine.
Both liberations, the personal and the political, worked together to produce the explosion of welfare dependency that took place in the mid-1960s. Indeed, the power of culture, the power of the new beliefs and values that have hardened into today’s orthodoxy, was so great that it overcame the economic and racial currents that were flowing strongly in precisely the opposite direction. After all, this explosion of dependency, which was disproportionate among blacks, was something that a booming economy and falling unemployment rate, along with the opening of society by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, should have forestalled. But just at that moment, culture changed.
For one thing, mainstream culture began to be intoxicated with its own sexual liberation—premarital, extramarital, you name it. If marriages broke up, as increasingly they did, that was okay, because individual, personal fulfillment was more important than family stability. As for the kids-we were telling ourselves that as long as we were happy, they’d be happy; they were resilient, adaptable; they’d do just fine in any kind of family structure.
We could hardly turn to the poor and say, okay, fellas, all this is fine for us, but not for you—you have to cleave to the straight and narrow. So we destigmatized for everybody much sexual behavior that formerly had been kept in check by strong social disapproval. In the case of the poor, in particular, we destigmatized getting pregnant out of wedlock, even for 15-year-olds, even for 13-year-olds. Indeed, the distinction between the respectable and the scandalous lost much of its power to govern behavior when so many stopped respecting respectability and stigmatizing its opposite.
When it came to making social policy, the same new ideas prevailed. We saw no problem with lumping mothers of legitimate and illegitimate children together and giving an income to the latter with no questions asked. We saw no problem with abetting the proliferation of single-parent families, which the then-prevailing ideology said were just as good as any other kind. Today, of course, we have mountains of data proving conclusively that intact two-parent families are far and away best for children in every respect—emotionally, educationally, and in terms of later success in work and marriage.
Similarly, new beliefs from the political part of the 1960s’ cultural shift contributed at least as much to the making of the welfare explosion as to most other features of the underclass. Take the key belief that the poor are, by the mere fact of their poverty, victims. Economic change has swept away their means of livelihood, goes this idea. Poverty gets inside them, filling them with feelings of futility and making them unable to take advantage of the real opportunities proliferating for the rest of society. These feelings, according to our new beliefs, lead them to self-destructive behavior and can only be changed by changing the economic circumstances.
Of course, telling the poor they are powerless victims of vast forces over which they have no control relieves them of the sense of personal responsibility and freedom we all need to summon the energy and initiative to change our fate. Further, when you tell people they are victims, the implication is that they’ve been damaged, that they’re defective, unable to compete in the same ballpark with the rest of us. This implicit message (often an implicitly racist message, in my view) can only intensify the anxiety of those at the bottom and can make a life on welfare—or on drugs or drink, or of dropping out or crime—look like all they’re capable of achieving.
That message is certainly contained in another baleful new idea of the political part of the cultural revolution: the idea that the victimized poor need reparations. In America, given its history, cockeyed Marxoid ideas of economic victimization got mixed up in the 1960s with an appropriate horror at the historical victimization of blacks to produce the belief that the state had to compensate the poor—and especially poor blacks—for their plight. That compensation, as Michael Harrington (among others) pronounced more than three decades ago, was welfare. In Harrington’s phrase, we give it not out of charity but justice. With that formulation, another stigma against accepting welfare fell. It became no more than the recipient’s due. Any shame attaches not to the welfare client but to the mainstream society that victimizes her.
But look at one key confusion embedded in this rationale. The reasoning here is fundamentally economic, energized with a powerful charge of race: people who are unjustly, through no fault of their own, closed out of an economy that allows their neighbors to prosper deserve their neighbors’ support. One can certainly disagree with the factual underpinnings of this notion by pointing to the almost forty million net new jobs created in the last quarter-century, many of them unskilled or low-skill, and many of them taken by millions of immigrants who have realized the American dream out of some of the humblest of those jobs. Nevertheless, disagree or not, one expects that the welfare system produced by such a rationale will be more or less similar to the dole as it exists in other Western industrial countries.
It isn’t. What makes the American welfare system unique is that the economic rationale for the dole was used to expand an existing New Deal program aimed at protecting not the unemployed, but children. Eligibility for the principal American welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, doesn’t hinge on simple lack of employment. Instead, it depends above all on having a child, along with no job and (usually) no husband, since the original Depression-era program was aimed primarily at children whose coal-miner fathers had died. In fact, as the focus of the program shifted away from the children, the original name of Aid to Dependent Children changed to Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1962.
The requirement that you have to have a baby and, normally, no husband to be eligible is what has made the U.S. welfare system so destructive. It makes the next generation an inseparable term of the welfare equation. This isn’t to say that the dole in Europe has been benign for society or the economy. But even though other countries have had an entrenched welfare population for longer than the United States, they haven’t had anything like our social pathology until recently. That’s partly because only recently have some welfare benefits, such as priority for public housing, become linked to having a child. Even more, it’s because welfare’s economic package, by itself, is not enough to produce the social pathology of an underclass.
For that, it takes cultural changes like those that have taken place in America over the last generation. Only now that the stigma against illegitimacy has fallen in England, for example, or that English judges and probation officers have begun to look at criminals as victims needing leniency, has England begun to show the explosions in illegitimacy and brutal crime that Americans first saw thirty years ago.
Once the new American culture destigmatized illegitimacy and presented asking your neighbors to support your illegitimate children as a right instead of a scandal, it transformed welfare into a machine for perpetuating an underclass by abetting the least competent women—those who have developed the least initiative and formed the weakest values—in becoming the mothers of the next generation. Fathers, especially crucial to the socialization of boys, are crossed out of the family equation altogether, so the families welfare encourages are weaker still. If you set out to design the most defective families you could imagine, you’d be hard-pressed to surpass this system.
This is the crux of the welfare problem: welfare’s intergenerational transmission of a culture of failure. Anyone who looks at underclass children, with so deplorable a legacy of poor health, emotional and intellectual stunting, and failure in school and in later life, would have to ask whose welfare is advanced by a welfare system that proliferates such dysfunctional families—families that pass along the underclass state of mind and way of life from generation to generation. If welfare were producing sturdy children who grew up to have useful and fulfilling lives, the fact that several million able-bodied women were being supported by their hard-working neighbors while they raised kids would be, however uncomfortable, infinitely less problematic. You could argue that a rich society could afford this price of giving children the upbringing they need to succeed. But when the very mechanism designed to further the welfare of children puts it so at risk that the children regularly grow up doomed to fail, that’s not tolerable.
To succeed in changing this malign system, welfare reform has to start by redefining the issue, shifting the focus from mothers to children. Welfare is not an unemployment benefit for “victims of society,” as we often unreflectingly assume. It isn’t designed to help adults but to protect children. That’s why it isn’t paid to all possible “victims of society” but only to households with children.
The real issue is: Can welfare be said to protect children adequately, when so many of its beneficiaries are so poorly cared for and, in consequence, grow up to be such dysfunctional adults? Isn’t there something mad about a system that helps create the very condition it is designed to assuage-that in the name of relieving childhood misery calls forth ever more of it by enabling unmarried, often teenaged, women who have no idea how to support or nurture or train children to bear and bring them up nevertheless? No wonder such a large percentage of American kids are classified as being in poverty: these are the children. Wouldn’t the best way for American society to solve the problems of the underclass be to stop encouraging it to reproduce itself generation after generation?
Anyone who makes such a suggestion must confront head-on this specter haunting the Haves: that significant welfare reform will fill the streets with starving, homeless children. The answer is for welfare reform to create a system dedicated to of life from generation to generation. If welfare nothing other than the welfare of children.
The bedrock of such a system would be communal hostels for needy kids-and their mothers. For the children, such hostels would provide structured, caring environments that would give infants and toddlers from the beginning the cognitive, verbal, and moral teaching that forms citizens with consciences and the ability to learn. By the time today’s underclass children are in Head Start, and certainly by the time they start school, it’s very late to begin teaching cause and effect, big and little, good and naughty, caring and cruel, sharing and selfish, and the whole array of cognitive and moral categories that it is the work of early childhood to learn, that families normally teach, and that underclass children don’t adequately acquire. Without mastery of these categories, it is hard to think and therefore to learn.
The new communal hostels should be limited to children born out of wedlock and their mothers. Widowed or divorced mothers would be eligible for a cash welfare payment, as at present. The point would be to make a distinction between women who have made a public, legal commitment to the ideal of a stable family and those who have borne children with no such declaration of responsibility. Because what happens at the periphery of society helps define the norms for those at the center, a society that wants to encourage the strong families that are best for children has to make such distinctions.
Won’t the new system stigmatize these mothers? I’m afraid so, but that is part of the point. When the state fulfills its responsibility of taking care of indigent children, it has to do so without condoning (and certainly without celebrating) the behavior of the mothers who, by bringing them into the world with no prospect of being able to support them, have disadvantaged them from the start. The new system aims to care well for the children in its charge while discouraging women both morally and economically from bearing children at the cost of the rest of the community.
The communal hostels will have rules of conduct for the mothers who live there, partly because the hostels should offer something very different from the life of license that the current welfare system offers young women, as it sets them up in their own apartments and gives them more purchasing power than a minimum wage job (up to $27,000 worth in New York City). But since the hostels focus on the children rather than the mothers, the rules are designed, above all, to ensure the order and structure children need.
In the same vein, the hostels will require mothers to take daily workshops on child care and child development to learn some of the basic truths about child rearing that young underclass women, not surprisingly, often don’t know: that babies cry because they are needy, not because they are “bad,” or that children need to be talked to and responded to—not ignored and not hit—if they are to grow up able to function as members of society. If a mother asks her neighbors to support her and her child, surely her neighbors can require her to take at least this much responsibility in return.
Mothers who don’t want to conform to this system are free to take their children and leave. If they can support them, fine. If they can’t, if the children are neglected or endangered, then the state, as it does now, will take them away. Unlike today’s practice, however, such children should be cared for in group foster homes far removed from the influence of the underclass neighborhoods where they were born. To avoid the bureaucratic callousness, meanness, and lack of accountability that might make such institutions harsh or cruel, they should be run not by government agencies but private charities, including the religious ones that have proved themselves so effective at humanely helping the unfortunate.
I want to stress once more that the goal of this entire system isn’t only to discourage unmarried women unable to support babies from having them. No less important for healing the pathology of the underclass, the system aims to ensure that the smaller number of such babies who will still be born despite all of society’s discouragement grow up with a fair chance of becoming happy and productive citizens. However sweeping the changes I am suggesting may seem, they have to be weighed clearsightedly against the dreadful reality of the present system, which consigns millions to misery and failure, condemning them to grow up with so many human excellences unawakened, lost to themselves and to society.