BRAINERD, MINN. -- The reason Americans hate welfare, says David T. Ellwood, is that it "inevitably brings some of our most precious values into conflict."
On the one hand, says this Harvard labor economist, we want to provide income support for poor people. On the other, we have a justifiable fear that in doing so we undermine the incentives for poor people to help themselves.
On the one hand, we want to provide help for the single-parent families who make up the largest segment of the nation's poor. On the other, we understand instinctively that providing that help tends to increase the number of such families.
So what do we do?
Ellwood, here to participate in a week-long seminar on "families at risk," has at least a partial answer. He begins by noting that the much-maligned present system works very well for some poor people: the elderly and the disabled.
As for the others, the answer may lie in what he calls "nonwelfare solutions."
Take, for instance, the working poor, which includes most impoverished two-parent families. It's no good talking about work incentives for such families, he argues, because at least one family member is already either working the equivalent of full-time, full-year or else desperately seeking employment.
These families, he says, are victims less of their personal shortcomings than of the economy. "They are working hard, or at least willing to work hard, but they aren't making it due to low wages or their inability to find work.
"If you gave me just two facts for any year between 1960 and 1980 -- the average wage rate in the United States and the unemployment rate, that's all -- I can tell you the poverty rate for that year for children in two-parent families within half a percentage point. It runs perfectly. And the disturbing fact is that these full-time working poor, after counting in all the government transfers, are actually the poorest of the poor. That's nuts."
For these families, Ellwood would use the existing Earned Income Tax Credit, perhaps doubling it from its present 15 percent rate. Thus, the working poor would have an additional $30 for every $100 they are able to earn "as a reward for working." He'd also provide them with medical care.
"In short, we ought to commit ourselves to the simple proposition that any family that has one person working the equivalent of full-time ought to be able at least to achieve the poverty line. That alone would solve the problem for roughly half of the poor."
For those who cannot find work, he would provide temporary "transitional assistance" (for a maximum of a year or two) with job-training opportunities. If after that period they still were unable to find work, he would provide last-resort public-sector jobs.
As for single-parent families, Ellwood likes the approach adopted by the state of Wisconsin. When a child is born, each parent is identified by a Social Security number. Absent parents are required to contribute a portion of their income to their children -- from 17 percent for one child up to 34 percent for five or more children.
In cases where the earnings of the absent parent are insufficient to provide some minimum level of child support -- say, $1,500 for each child -- government subsidies would bring the support up to that level. In contrast to welfare, these government-guaranteed contributions represent the absent parent's obligation and would not be affected by the mother's work.
"A woman would not have to visit a welfare office, report all her earnings, be investigated by case workers or treated as a failure in order to get her child support."
The disappointment in Ellwood's presentation is his treatment of what he calls the "ghetto poor."
He tells the participants in this seminar, sponsored by the Minneapolis Foundation, that he will speak to this issue in his forthcoming book, "Poor Support: Poverty and the American Family." But his presentation here simply acknowledges that "the ghetto poor have special problems aggravated by the 'shuns' -- concentration, isolation, deprivation and terrible education" -- and that, given the fact that they constitute only a small fraction of the nation's poor, it is folly to try to build a welfare system based on their situation.
Indeed, says Ellwood, it is a mistake to try to devise a unified system for dealing with the generic poor. There are several distinct groups of poor families, and their poverty has different causes.
"It is far easier to divide and conquer poverty," he concludes, "than to magically transform it with some ultimate solution. A sum of parts can do far more than a seamless but undiscerning whole.