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Letting the Poor Take Care of the Poorer

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, January 31 1997; Page A21


Here's news we're supposed to be happy about: Now that the federal government has shucked off responsibility for the poor to the states, state governments are shucking off responsibility to counties and cities. Soon nobody will be responsible for helping the poor.

Ah, the joys of "devolution." President Clinton went out of his way to extol them at his news conference Tuesday by referring to a recent Washington Post story about states "trying to push this down to the community level." His hopeful analysis: "That's not bad. That's good, as long as they give the communities the means they need." Right. The welfare bill the president signed last year reduced federal responsibilities, but the states are supposed to do the right thing.

So much of the welfare reform rhetoric is appealing. Of course the current welfare system has failed. Yes, welfare should be designed as a way of moving people from dependency to work. States and localities should be encouraged to find solutions that best fit their own circumstances. Voluntary institutions, especially the churches, are better placed than government to give helpful guidance, personal and moral, to people in trouble.

These assertions, all true, evade one problem: They cost money that is not there.

That's why the welfare debate is "Orwellian," as in George Orwell's famous assertions about words being used to mean things utterly opposite from what they really mean. Arguments that sound sympathetic to the poor are used to justify giving them less help.

As a country, we are not nearly as generous as we like to think. We give a fair amount to charity, but many of our "charities" are for us: the colleges and universities we went to, the theaters and museums we visit, the public television and radio stations we enjoy, the churches we go to, the hospitals that have served us.

We should contribute to such endeavors. But little of that money gets to the poor. The United Way has given donors broad leeway to designate their favorite charities. In the District of Columbia at least, that has meant less money to the organizations that serve the inner-city poor.

This should not be surprising. We give to the people and the causes we know. The problem is the increasing distance between the very poorest people in our society and the rest of us. That is why we have relied on government to help the poor. Our use of government has been our candid admission that we don't do as much for the poor as we should.

The voguish idea is that if government did less, individuals would suddenly do more. It's a nice theory that defies history and human nature. Many of the people who propound it also argue that self-interest is a positive force for creativity and hard work. Our self-interest does, indeed, drive us to do useful and inventive things. But it rarely pushes us to help people we have nothing to do with.

When we decide to share responsibility for the poorest across the whole country, none of us has to shell out a lot to help people support their families and work their way out of poverty. People in affluent areas chip in to help people in less well-off precincts.

But if we shove responsibility for the poor to the most hard-pressed localities, we're asking the near-poor to help the poorest. Mary Jo Bane, an assistant secretary of health and human services until she quit, rightly thought the president was wrong in signing the welfare "reform" bill. She described the problem well in an interview with Post reporters Judith Havemann and Barbara Vobejda: "Poor people tend to be concentrated in certain areas of states that don't have the resources to take care of them."

So if we were serious about welfare reform, what would we do?

We'd have the federal government put up the money required to support our poorest families and to create jobs for those who cannot yet meet the standards of the private sector. We'd funnel some money through those voluntary and church institutions that work valiantly to help people with broken lives. We'd encourage states to keep experimenting with better ways of helping the poor without leaving them strapped for resources.

It would be lovely if all of us responded to the cutbacks by leaping into the breach and helping the poor. We should do it. But will we? The evidence – of many levels of government trying to push the problem elsewhere – is not encouraging. Unfortunately, those governments are responding to popular wishes. They're speaking for us.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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