The welfare "dilemma" is easy enough to state: make the payments large enough so families can purchase their basic necessities, and you destroy the recipients' incentive to take subsistence-level work. Make the payments small enough to render even the dirtiest, worst-paid work relatively attractive, and you condemn families to less than the basic necessities of life.
Now comes Leonard Goodwin, who says that the dilemma may be more theoretical than real. He says able-bodied adults stay on welfare not out of choice but out of necessity: they can't find jobs. The problem is not in the psychology of welfare but in the economy.
Unlike many of us who have commented on the welfare problem, Goodwin bases his views on considerable research at the source: a series of surveys and follow-up interviews with welfare recipients. His principal finding, probably more startling than it ought to be, is that "there is virtually no evidence that welfare dependency is caused by preference for welfare."
We've all seen the news stories of thousands of unemployed persons showing up for a few dozen jobs. We take that as evidence that most people would rather work than draw unemployment compensation. But we don't often see the evidence that welfare recipients also prefer to earn their way.
A dozen years ago, a federally funded Welfare Demonstration Project (WDP) created 5,000 clerical and personal-service jobs for AFDC recipients. Despite the fact that the project was not widely advertised, it quickly got twice as many applicants as there were jobs available. But by the time the program had terminated, fewer than half had been able to locate unsubsidized jobs--and most of these jobs were at about the same wage level as those of a control group that had not participated in the WDP experiment.
Says Goodwin: "the fact that these welfare recipients did flow into the subsidized jobs when they were available, and did carry them out effectively, substantiates our view that labor-market limitations are a major cause of the welfare problem."
So would Goodwin endorse "workfare"? No. Not because the theory is bad but because workfare, in practice, almost always entails make-work jobs that provide neither training nor improved ability to find unsubsidized work. What is needed, he insists, is a national employment policy--especially now that the computer revolution is rendering more and more low-skill jobs obsolete.
"The observed apathy among poor men, and the large number of welfare households headed only by mothers, emerges from the inability of these persons to locate jobs," says Goodwin. "These people do not need the temporary, make-work activities of workfare. They need adequate training and jobs; jobs that pay enough for them to support their families at least at a subsistence level and that are relatively secure.
"The lesson for welfare policy is clear: Provide work, not welfare."