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Jewish World Review August 6, 2002 / 28 Menachem-Av, 5762

Robert W. Tracinski

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The welfare debate we're not having | The 1996 welfare reform was a spectacular success. Opponents predicted that millions of children would be plunged into poverty; in fact, as welfare roles dwindled, poverty rates dropped. It turns out -- apparently to the surprise of many on the left -- that working for a living is better than subsisting as a parasite on government handouts.

Welfare reform is too successful to kill, so the left is trying to water it down, through a Senate bill that would weaken the law's "welfare-to-work" requirements. How can the most successful government reform of the past decade be derailed? The reason is the welfare debate we have not had: a debate over the morality of welfare.

Consider the left's excuse for its sabotage of welfare reform -- the one negative statistic they have managed to salvage from all of the good news: an increase in the number of black, inner-city children living in "no-parent families" -- that is, children living with grandparents or foster parents. The gambit is to tie this statistic to welfare reform, like a tin can to a dog's tail. The press is happy to assist; a New York Times article, for example, describes this one statistic as "contributing to second thoughts among some of the most optimistic analysts" of welfare reform. But the same article also admits that "researchers say they cannot pinpoint the forces driving parents and children apart."

In fact, the underlying "force" is clear. But to find it, you have to look, not at statistics, but at real people. The Times article actually does that -- with unintended results -- by profiling the case of a grandmother caring for her daughter's child. What do we discover about the daughter who has abandoned her child? She is a high-school dropout who was left by the child's father. She briefly supported herself before finding a source of welfare that still does not require work: Social Security disability payments. She also took a new husband, against the grandmother's warnings. The man was abusive, which is why the child now lives with her grandmother. And what happened then? The woman, supposedly sick enough for "disability" payments, was healthy enough to have another child -- which she is now struggling to support after being left by her new husband.

This story is all too familiar to anyone who has examined the lives of chronic welfare recipients. The defenders of welfare would probably dismiss it as a vicious "stereotype" -- except that this particular case was reported in an article with a pro-welfare bias.

The reporter wants us to wrack our brains about what anonymous "social forces" caused this woman's life of squalor. But to any responsible person, the cause of her plight shouts from the pages. If this woman's life is a train wreck -- with her children as its innocent victims -- the cause is not social or even political; it is moral. The cause is a systematic refusal to think about the long term or take responsibility for her life. Every responsibility she has faced -- to get an education, to work for a living, to judge a man's character, to make sure she is able to provide for her children -- she has systematically ducked.

If it seems shocking to speak about poverty in moral terms, to regard someone's squalor as the result of his lack of character and values -- then that is because the moral assumptions behind the welfare state have been so widely and uncritically accepted. In the welfare statist's world, no one is responsible for his own life. People's lives are shaped by social forces, not by their own choices. Because "society" makes people poor, in this view, "society" owes them handouts.

This unquestioned assumption is the welfare debate we're not having.

That people are responsible for their own lives is something we can see from our own experience -- from the choices we make that keep us out of poverty. Did you get an education, rather than dropping out? Did you get up and go to work this morning rather than giving up and going on welfare? Did you wait to have children until you could afford to support them? If so, then why should you pay for the moral failings of people who did not make those choices?

If people are responsible for their lives, then welfare is an inversion of morality: an attempt to punish some people for the sins of others. And that means that we shouldn't be debating the "reform" of welfare. We should be debating its abolition.

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