Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Welfare Deform

James Skillen


January 22, 1996

President Clinton rode to victory four years ago on a promise to "end welfare as we know it." So what did he do when a welfare reform bill finally landed on his desk? He vetoed it. Senate Republican leader Bob Dole promptly charged Clinton with "total responsibility for the continuation of that failed welfare system."

Good sound bite, Senator Dole, but lousy analysis. There is no plain-as-day federal fix to convert welfare from failure to success. In fact, fierce internal fighting over what kind of change makes for improved welfare is why it took Republicans more than a year to get a bill to the President after they'd promised their own swift action.

Critics have trashed the Republican plan as a dark day for poor children. That kind of animus presumes that current policies are sufficiently pro-family—not a tenable stance. But the bill isn't so solidly crafted, either. Its tough time limit on benefits, for instance, doesn't obligate recipients to plot from the start how they'll get off welfare, and it forgets how far from self-sufficiency some recipients are.

Here's the sad truth: despite years of debates and proposals, the welfare reform efforts of both Republicans and Democrats remain shallow—preoccupied with economic incentives and resources and fixated on whether government programs rescue poor persons or entrap them. Such approaches downplay the social and moral breakdowns that combine with personal problems to yield entrenched and deepening poverty: the collapse of families and marriages, neighborhoods drained of hope and leadership, failing schools, fleeing churches, ineffective or absent public services, disconnections between workers and jobs.

As the Center's new book, Welfare in America: Christian Perspectives on a Policy in Crisis, points out, welfare at base isn't about the most efficient transfer of resources from government to the needy nor is it doomed to enslave those it tries to help. Welfare should aim to move people to fulfill the diverse responsibilities of a healthy life. That requires more than improving the sticks and carrots of government programs. Social institutions need to be rebuilt and social networks rewoven. A dynamic of personal and social renewal needs to be nurtured.

Making real progress, and not just getting some welfare changes into the books, requires something other than splitting the difference between the President's goal of more assistance for the needy and the Republicans' determination to wean the poor from welfare dependency. What's needed is to go beyond just fine-tuning welfare incentives to find ways to strengthen civil society and tap its moral energy and spiritual direction. Government can play a positive role in this.

So here is the real tragedy of this abortive round of welfare reform. The Republican plan is wrong to dump welfare on unprepared states and to chop spending with the mere hope that new approaches and efficiencies will cover the gap. But the bill the president killed does contain a very promising federal welfare innovation: the charitable choice provision developed by Missouri Senator John Ashcroft.

Ashcroft's language challenges states to link up with private groups that are already assisting the needy. It requires states not to exclude faith-based programs from joining in. And it guarantees that participating religious groups may maintain their spiritual approach to helping the poor. That kind of innovation is vital if welfare reform is to mean progress and not merely change.

Real welfare reform will be at hand when public policy strengthens families, restructures schools to engage parents and reinforce moral order, and constructively supports faith-based assistance programs that guide as well as assist, and that build up neighborhoods as well as persons.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Senior Fellow
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”