Let me make clear right from the beginning that Kalman R. Hettleman is only telling you what you already know. But that's all right: it is sometimes necessary for someone else to tell us what we know before we can act on that knowledge.
What Hettleman, once Maryland's welfare chief and now a University of Maryland (Baltimore) professor of social policy, is saying is this: liberals and conservatives are so busy arguing the plusses and minuses of public welfare that they overlook the fact that they agree far more than they disagree.
Liberals know, but have trouble acknowledging, that there really is such a thing as a welfare trap. Conservatives know, but you won't hear them say it, that there are some people for whom welfare as presently constituted works very well. But because neither side has been willing to acknowledge that the other has a point, both sides go on dealing with the welfare problem as though poverty and dependency are the same thing.
"They are not," Hettleman insists, and failure to understand the difference will make it impossible to move toward workable programs that can win acceptance across the political spectrum.
"First, welfare use is not typically a long-term experience," he wrote in a recent think-piece for the Baltimore Sun. "The typical spell of welfare is fairly short -- half extend for period of no more than two years and only one in six lasts more than eight years. . . . Welfare dependency is not typically transmitted from one generation to another." (Liberals will nod in agreement.)
But: 2 to 3 percent of all Americans -- a higher percentage in the older cities -- "are persistently, often intergenerationally, dependent on welfare. It defies reason as well as empirical evidence to deny that the present welfare system contributes to their condition." (It's the conservatives' turn to nod.)
Is he proposing, then, a two-tier welfare setup: the present system for those capable of using it as the emergency relief mechanism it is supposed to be and something different for those vulnerable to welfare entrapment?
Not really. In fact, Hettleman's proposal has very much the taste of old soup warmed over -- which doesn't necessarily make it less palatable than what's on our plates now. He would divide the needy into two groups: those who aren't able to work and those who are. The first group would get the help they need to live in decency. The second would get jobs: full-time jobs in the private economy if possible; subsidized private jobs as a second priority, and public sector jobs as a last resort.
The notion of linking a work requirement (for the able-bodied) to a welfare check will find wide acceptance -- whispered by liberals, nervous over possible abuses, and shouted from the rooftops by conservatives, weary of handouts to "shiftless bums."
In fact, it could be a meeting ground for a real assault on the range of problems confronting the underclass. For as Hettleman pointed out in a telephone interview, it is unreasonable to hope that welfare, properly conceived and administered, could, by itself, solve problems ranging from teen-age pregnancy and poor infant nutrition to bad schools and inadequate values.
It is his hope that, if we can be made to understand the breadth of our agreement on the basic questions surrounding welfare, we might see the wisdom of doing for the underdeveloped underclass what Baltimore did for its underdeveloped downtown. "Using Baltimore City as an example, there must be the same all-out, long- term commitment to reverse the fate of the welfare underclass as there was to dwntown renewal -- a task that seemed as unattainable in the '50s and '60s as ending welfare dependency seems today."