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'Welfare Dust Bowl'

By Mark Alan Hughes
Wednesday, September 25 1996; Page A23


Twelve years after its publication, much of Charles Murray's "thought experiment" about ending the federal entitlement to subsistence income has become law. During these dozen years, liberals and conservatives have engaged in intellectual jujitsu, each side trying to throw the other off balance. Conservatives asserted their greater compassion for the poor in assaulting the system, while liberals acknowledged the need to focus programs on a transition from welfare to work.

But in the end, after all the flips and trips, we are left with de-entitlement, with welfare repeal rather than welfare reform. Compassion has been replaced with calls to "get out of the wagon and start pulling" and with inside-the-Beltway deals to balance the budget on the backs of poor families. Transition, which is an idea with a destination, has been replaced with time limits, which is no idea at all, merely a cut-off date. The only transition now is to a time when more than a million children, according to one careful estimate, will be living in Murray's thought experiment, a device Murray himself has insisted was not a prescription for legislation.

The clearest provision of the new bill is that the head of every family on assistance must work within two years or the family will lose its benefits. Lifetime welfare benefits are limited to five years, and states may set stricter limits. These time limits will fall disproportionately on the nation's cities, because that's where the current welfare caseload is concentrated. For example, half of Wisconsin's total welfare population resides in Milwaukee County, 42 percent of Pennsylvania's welfare population in Philadelphia County, and a staggering 69 percent of New York's in New York City.

When the time limits expire for large numbers of these families (as they surely will: today, three-quarters of all children on AFDC at any given time will be on for more than five years), then what? We really cannot expect the cities of the Northeast and Midwest – which have lost hundreds of thousands of jobs to their suburbs and to the Sunbelt – to suddenly absorb thousands of welfare mothers, their children and the fathers of those children.

At last count, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York had the highest proportions of their populations on welfare among the largest cities in the United States – as high as 26 percent of all households in Detroit. These are large numbers of people. As of this summer, about 65,000 adults received AFDC in Detroit, 70,000 in Philadelphia, 100,000 in Chicago and 285,000 in New York.

It takes a growing economy to absorb new entrants, and while the job situation has generally been improving in these cities in recent months, the increase is not nearly enough to accommodate the demand that will be created by the welfare bill.

Most discussions of migration in response to changes in welfare have been about the so-called "race to the bottom," whereby states lower their benefit levels to match the lowest state in order to avoid attracting welfare recipients. With time limits, of course, this dynamic is largely moot. One won't move for benefits one is no longer entitled to.

But one will move to find work, if work is the only way to survive. In some inner-city neighborhoods, AFDC provides the subsistence income for half the residents. When that income is gone and no work is available, we will have created a "welfare dust bowl" in our inner cities.

Some may tout the power of survival as a work incentive. But these same people – who typically live and work in comfortable, prosperous suburbs and who calmly support the abolition of a federal income entitlement – may not welcome the survivors' desperate need to move in order to find that work.

My mother's grandparents lost their Missouri farm during the last dust bowl, and my father's parents left the Midwest as part of a caravan of new cars, driving the cars to California in exchange for a free ride. The nation is just two or three generations removed from immigrants and Okies who endured the harshness of exodus and who, when they arrived at their promised land, helped build and sustain a 60-year governing majority in support of programs entitling all Americans to minimum levels of income and food.

The welfare dust bowl will generate its own exodus. It will be harsh, as such movements always are. But this time, unlike the 1930s, it is not clear that we have a promised land. Although the Joad family of Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" had a miserable journey, they ultimately found work in golden California. Can the prosperous suburbs and Sunbelt provide today's dust-bowlers with enough work to survive?

Even more ominous, unlike the 1930s, the journey this time will be made with the most meager help of the federal government. No Department of Agriculture model camps in which Ma Joad will be "treated decent." Will the suburbs and the Sunbelt welcome the dust-bowlers in search of work and without any other means to survive?

The administration's proposed $3.4 billion initiative to help cities create jobs for those leaving the welfare rolls is a good start. But it will not keep these difficult questions from arising. This new effort would be smaller in any given city than the current Empowerment Zones/Enterprise Communities program, which has produced far fewer jobs so far than are likely to be needed under welfare reform.

Short of a much larger jobs program in the cities, which would necessarily involve public-sector employment, we must acknowledge and prepare for the welfare dust bowl. It will be the great unintended consequence of the new time limits.

The writer is a vice president of Public/Private Ventures in Philadelphia, a nonprofit public-policy research organization.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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