Charles A. Murray thinks it's time to put the shame back in welfare. It isn't, he insists, that he takes a sadist's delight in watching poor folk grovel. It is, instead, his belief that shame and pride are opposite sides of the same coin, and you can't get rid of one without getting rid of the other.
He doesn't doubt that, since the 1960s, we have virtually eliminated the embarrassment of being on the dole. Nor does he doubt that this reform, like virtually all of the reforms of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, has done far more harm than good.
"If you want to pat people on the back for doing a good job under tough circumstances," says this Washington-based social science consultant, "the flip side is that you have to be prepared to criticize them for doing no job at all."
The best illustration of where we have gone wrong with our attitude toward the poor, says Murray, is in the public schools. "In many years of working with the worst of the worst, I was struck by the fact that if you were a poor kid in the inner city, going to school every day, trying to perform for the teacher, you were put into a corner. The effort, the attention and the help went to the failures.
"You couldn't pick out the ones who were trying and help them, because to do that was to assign a certain responsibility for their situation, which a lot of people didn't want to assign. If you said that the hardworking kid deserved special help because he worked hard, you were also saying that the kid who wasn't trying did not deserve special help."
It is as mistaken an approach to welfare as it is to education, says Murray.
"I would like to see us restore the social distinctions which used to exist whereby, in a poor community, the people who pulled their own weight were different from those who were chronically on the public dole. When times were tough and some guy was out of a job, you didn't change your opinion of that person because he was out of work. But there were distinctions made between those who were generally productive and those who weren't, and I would like to see those distinctions restored."
If that notion is exactly counter to the notion of those who, like the late George Wiley, fought long and hard for welfare as a right rather than a stigmatized system of charity, Murray is prepared to say that Wiley and the others were wrong: not just philosophically, but pragmatically as well.
Equally wrong, in his view, was the Great Society reform that made welfare grants available to the working poor. That reform was based on the apparently reasonable assumption that we ought to make it possible for people on welfare to take the first steps toward self-sufficiency by enabling them to take jobs without losing their welfare benefits on a dollar-for-dollar basis.
The unanticipated result was to remove the pride-based distinctions between the working poor and the shiftless, since both were on the dole, says Murray. And it served to undercut the incentives for taking low-paying work, a point he makes in his recent monograph, "Safety Nets and the Truly Needy," published by the Heritage Foundation.
"Under the 'old' system," he wrote, "a person with a low-paying job had strong incentives in both the short and long term to hold on to the job he had and to get a better one if he could."
The reforms have changed that, he said in a recent interview. "What the present system really does," he said, "is to subsidize behaviors at the beginning of the (job) ladder which are going to prevent you from ever getting any further up."
Murray's key points have been made before: (1) that welfare tends to cut the bottom rungs off the economic ladder, making welfare recipients more likely to spend a lifetime of dependency than, for instance, new immigrants -- including illegal immigrants -- who take dreadful jobs because they aren't eligible for public assistance, and (2) that attempts to encourage welfare recipients to take low-paid work by allowing them to keep some of their benefits have the effect of expanding welfare up the economic ladder, increasing the cost beyond the ability or the willingness of the public to pay.
Both in his monograph and in his conversation, Murray does a fine job of pointing out the problems of the present system. But he's a long way from devising a system that shows promise of working better.