TWO THOUSAND dollars worth of possessions not counting your living quarters, essential household goods and car, if you have one, does not exactly represent a royal patrimony. You could maybe have a couple of real luxury items for that or an accumulation (though not a very large one) of things that could be given up without doing harm to your health, safety or sanity. But basically $2,000 doesn't buy an awful lot of anything these days. Still, to the self-denying, spartan-living members of the U.S. Congress and the Reagan administration it seems a rich and princely sum indeed, far too rich and princely for a welfare family--yecch! a welfare family--to possess. So it is that the government in its wisdom has decided to reduce from $2,000 to $1,000 the worth of personal property outside the necessities that a person may have and still qualify for welfare.
A lot of the trimming back on domestic social programs that has occurred over the past several months has been warranted. Some of it has been questionable. This particular initiative, however, taking place as it has in the Age of the Senate Steam Room and under the Sign of Harper's Bazaar, is disgusting. We suppose that if you persist in viewing all welfare recipients as variations on the spectacular cheaters and "welfare queens" who are periodically uncovered, it makes sense. But if you believe that welfare recipients are something other than a class of criminals and subhumans who need to be punished, believe that they are in fact much like what we otherwise describe as "people"--people who would like to keep their families together and to enjoy a dignified, productive relationship to society--then you will see this punitive, degrading act for what it is.
The economics of the effort are a joke. What is the merit of a one-shot gain that comes from disposing of those assets a welfare recipient has in excess of $1,000 in value, when the present limit is $2,000? What is the effect to be on those numerous people who go on and off welfare as their job opportunities and fortunes change with the changing economic times? If you want help for a few months, you'd better sell off that second thousand dollars worth of inessential goods. Are we not trying to strengthen the stability and self-confidence of the people who are on welfare, to enlarge and protect the stake they feel they have in the society as a whole--to bring them into the normal middle-class economic order in which most of us live? Do you do this by ensuring that anything they have acquired beyond $1,000 worth must be sold off before they get help?
The Congress that was so solicitous of inherited wealth, making sure this summer that the estate tax laws would be revised so as to ensure that family acquisitions could be passed on from one generation to another, seems not to have any idea at all that a few permanently held, valuable possessions might have a beneficial effect on a welfare family far in excess of any good to be had by making it sell these things. The Congress that went to such lengths to guarantee that the independent oilmen should have the greatest capital gains blessings the government could provide them is worried that a welfare recipient might have, at $2,000 worth, just too darn many assets. It sounds as though they really just want to make sure that these people never get any sense, however dim, that things for them, materially, can get better. It is bad economics and wretched social policy. Our guess is that they know it too, that we are dealing here not with mindlessness, but with sheer cynicism.