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A Welfare Test

By William J. Bennett
Sunday, August 18 1996; Page C07


In his article opposing the recent welfare bill ["When Principle Is at Issue," op-ed, Aug. 4], Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan writes that I and a number of conservative social scientists – James Q. Wilson, Lawrence Mead, and John DiIulio – appreciate the "horrors of this [welfare] legislation" and have "warned over and over that this is radical legislation with altogether unforeseeable consequences, many of which will surely be loathsome. All honor to them."

I have long admired Sen. Moynihan, and he is generous in his praise. And be assured: It is no small thing to be praised by Pat Moynihan. But he has (unintentionally) misrepresented my views. I have been and I remain a strong supporter of the Republican welfare bill. I have written and testified on behalf of some of its main provisions. There are some provisions with which I disagree (such as cutting off welfare to legal immigrants). Nevertheless, I consider this to be the most consequential legislation of the 104th Congress.

Moynihan is right in pointing out that we cannot know all of the social consequences that will follow the passage of this welfare bill. That is true, of course, of virtually every piece of legislation. I have said repeatedly that advocates of welfare reform must acknowledge that changes in the system will not come easily, fast or cost-free. Some people will be slow to, or they simply will fail to, adjust to the behavior that new laws will require. But there simply is no other alternative; things have to change if we are to avoid social ruin.

Though we cannot know the future, there are also some things we do know – namely, that the current welfare system in general – and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in particular – is a present-day horror. During the last three decades, it has piled up a terrible body count in terms of wasted and lost lives. It pays people to act in socially irresponsible ways (i.e., it subsidizes illegitimacy and undermines the work ethic). Even many critics of welfare reform concede that the welfare system is systematically flawed. Up to now, however, they have succeeded in preventing others from taking the logical and humane next step – namely, make systemic changes and try other ways.

There is now a powerful consensus that the welfare system is ruinous and fundamentally flawed. At the same time, there are different, compelling, but mostly untried, theories about what ought to replace it. It is now time to try them. The percentage of out-of-wedlock births is a social catastrophe (according to the latest data, almost one-third of all American births are out-of-wedlock). Welfare subsidizes and helps sustain illegitimacy; it is illegitimacy's economic life-support system. That is the area where I believe we ought to concentrate our reform efforts, as well as on promoting adoption and channeling more support to private and religious poverty-fighting charities.

Others think that replacing welfare with public service jobs is the best way to go. The only way to prove who is right and who is wrong – or determine what is the best mix – is to test these social theories against reality. This is precisely why we need to allow the states to try different approaches. Which is precisely what this welfare bill does.

Critics of the welfare legislation paint a picture of a Dickensian world in which states (in contrast to the federal government) will callously allow children to starve on grates and die in the streets. But this assumption is as unknowing about the future as it is oblivious to the present. Why would one assume that Secretary Donna Shalala cares more about the children of Michigan than Gov. John Engler? Or knows better than the governor what welfare approach would work in Michigan? Regardless, over the last 30 years the federal government has established, even unintentionally, an astonishingly brutal record. Advocates of "devolution" can marshal some compelling arguments on their behalf – compassion and self-government being just two.

Breaking the cycle of illegitimacy and dependency ultimately depends on stopping widespread, deeply entrenched and highly destructive behavior. This will not be easy; there are a number of noneconomic cultural forces at work. Policy reforms alone are not sufficient to the task. But they are necessary.

Can welfare reformers guarantee that fundamental reforms in welfare will not cause some dislocation and suffering? Of course not. But the relevant question is: compared to what? The burden of proof rests not on those who would try something new but on those who would defend the horrors of the status quo. After all, proponents of welfare reform can make a plausible case that the current system is exacting a far higher cost than what will replace it.

Thirty years ago Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan courageously warned about the "tangle of pathologies" that was threatening to destroy the black family. He wrote that the breakup of the black family is "the single most important social fact of the United States today." When Moynihan wrote those words, one-quarter of all black children were born out-of-wedlock. Today, the figure is more than 70 percent. Isn't that enough?

This month, the leaders of the 104th Congress passed legislation that will begin to address intelligently and compassionately some of America's modern-day, and far more acute, "tangle of pathologies."

All honor to them.

The writer is a co-director of Empower America and an Olin fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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