Welfare Pair
by Glenn C. Loury
Hard Questions Column
The New Republic
January 5 & 12, 1998
  

 

Last spring, Robert M. Solow, the Nobel Prizewinning economist from M.I.T., gave one of the prestigious Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton University. He spoke about welfare reform–a topic far from the theoretical research for which he is renowned, but one that is nevertheless dear to his heart. A liberal Democrat, Solow predictably lamented that President Clinton had signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act–the 1996 legislation that ended welfare as a federal entitlement. However, being a no-nonsense analyst, rather than dwell on this lament, he went on to ask how the new law might be made to work better.

Now, several months later, James Q. Wilson of UCLA, perhaps the most influential political scientist of his generation, is asking the same question. A conservative Republican, Wilson was more sympathetic to the welfare reform effort. However, he, too, is gravely concerned: he fears we are not doing enough to promote the well-being of poor children. In early December, Wilson delivered the prestigious Boyer Lecture to a black-tie gathering in Washington, D.C., hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, under the title, "Two Nations." He spoke about policies that could help forestall a transformation of the United States into what Benjamin Disraeli, speaking of Victorian England, called "two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy."

Their political differences notwithstanding, these two eminent social scientists are making weighty arguments that point in the same direction. And it's a direction different from the one in which our policymakers are going now. Solow and Wilson both believe that effective anti-poverty policy means spending more, not less, but spending it more wisely than we have in the past. Solow believes the new law's work requirements (adults must go to work within two years of first receiving benefits) need the "purposeful creation of jobs, in numbers, places and forms that are suitable for the people who will fill them." Wilson, concerned about impaired child development, argues that policymakers should concentrate on rebuilding the family. "If, as is now the case, how [children] are raised is left to overwhelmed women or institutional arrangements [then] the only way we can restore the balance is by committing money to the task of inducing actions that were once the product of spontaneous arrangements."

Solow and Wilson also share something else: namely, a belief that many welfare recipients are so ill-equipped to enter the mainstream workforce, even the best training programs won't reach them. In his Tanner lectures, Solow discussed the sobering results of welfare-to-work projects from the past decade: as many as a third of welfare recipients cannot find and keep jobs that pay enough to support their families. Wilson, drawing on his own previous research, told his audience–mostly business leaders and conservative policy intellectuals–that the root causes of social disorder are to be found early in life. When children do not receive the nurture that is essential for the development of sound character, they are much more likely to get caught up in violent crime, drug addiction, and illegitimacy. Accordingly, he proposed more intensive pre-school education–"much more intensive than what typically occurs in Project Head Start"–including parent training and home visitations along with child care. And, Wilson said, the government should fund residential programs for unmarried teenage mothers who have no competent adult to oversee their handling of the newborn, even though the annual cost of such a program might run as high as $40,000 per mother.Of course, this is not to say the two see eye to eye. But, connecting their respective lines of thought is the common insight that the personal resources, job skills, and child-rearing capacities of a sizable minority of welfare recipients are severely limited. As a result, even after several years of support, the perfectly foreseeable consequence of leaving many of these mothers and their children on their own is that we will produce a humanitarian disaster.

I came to the same conclusion myself on a recent visit to an educational program for welfare mothers in the New York City area. The program's offices are in a grim public housing project overlooking the Hudson River; the entrance door is pocked with bullet holes. Ostensibly, the program helps local welfare mothers earn their high school equivalency certificates by preparing them for an exam that requires reading and math skills at roughly the tenth-grade level. While the women are in class, the program provides high-quality day care for their children, some of whom are just a few months old.

I asked the dozen or so participants with whom I spoke what they expected to be doing two years hence. Each said she'd be holding down a good-paying job thanks to the equivalency certificate. Yet, the social worker directing the program confided in me that, based on her experience over the past six years, only a small minority–maybe as few as one in five–would ever pass the exam. So impaired is their cognitive and emotional development, she said, and so chaotic are their lives, that most of the women, even those who truly apply themselves, are unlikely to attain tenth-grade skill levels.

But success can be measured in more than one way. The more important objective of the program, the director told me, is to give children a better chance. She recounted horror stories: a visit to a client's home finds a baby strapped into a stroller in front of a flickering television screen in an otherwise empty room; a toddler arrives with language skills so dramatically delayed as to suggest the virtual absence of verbal stimulation during infancy. Violent boyfriends, bouts of homelessness, unplanned pregnancies, and battles with addiction impede the mothers' progress. The director's bottom line: "It's all over by three. Either we reach these children early, or we can forget it."

For a decade, the core idea of welfare reform has been that nobody should get a free ride–recipients should work in return for their benefits. This is a sound principle, politically and morally. But it is not sufficient to guide policy in this area. There are recipients who will be unable to live up to their part of the bargain. And there are children whose dim prospects are given insufficient weight in the calculus of reciprocity. Fortunately, the wisest thinking, on both the left and the right, recognizes that we have unfinished business on the welfare front. Now, if only our politicians could muster the vision and the will to act.