Well, of course "workfare." How could we ever have deceived ourselves into believing there was some other rational way of delivering relief checks to able-bodied adults than by letting them work for it.
New York is but the latest state to adopt this "obvious" notion, now sweeping the country. Giving people what they need, without requiring any exertion on their part, is absurd policy. It seems so clear to so many of us now that we imagine we've always known it.
Well, we haven't always known it, and it is far from settled that it always has been true, no matter how irresistibly logical it now seems. I offer you an insight given me by Evan Kemp of the Disability Rights Center when I asked him to explain to me why the word "disabled" had supplanted the equally serviceable "handicapped" in describing people with physical impairments -- and why "handicapped" had replaced "crippled," and so on.
Forget logic, Kemp told me. Acceptable designations for a particular out-of-favor group keep changing every so often until that group becomes a respected part of society. "As long as a group is ostracized or otherwise demeaned, whatever name is used will take on a demeaning flavor and have to be replaced."
It is my guess that the same thing applies to social programs. We change our ways of dealing with people in need for the same reason we change what we call people who are confined to wheelchairs. Approaches, like terminology, run their course and are abandoned, not because the approaches were wrong, or because the problem has changed, but because too long an association with a problem gives the solution a bad name.
Charity used to be a private affair. The needy would seek aid from a well-to-do patron and, in effect, propose a contract. The needy would get cash or other help. The provider of that help would get a heady combination of deference, free labor and a sense of his own saintliness. It worked for a time.
But then it must have occurred to us that reducing the poor to hat-in-hand mendicancy was not a good thing. Better to institutionalize charity, both in order to reach all those in need (not everyone could find a decent patron) and also to remove the pride-destroying elements of the private arrangements.
And so we got public welfare, and that worked too -- for a while. Welfare soon developed its own "shaming" system, providing an incentive for those who could exist without the dole to do so but also humiliating (and crippling) those who couldn't. Then came "welfare rights," a worthwhile effort to remove the shame from dependency, followed by the slow recognition that the absence of shame had its own costs, including a disincentive to seek gainful employment.
That's about where we are now. We have rediscovered truths so obvious that we wonder how we ever lost touch with them: that work is the only noncorrosive means of gaining income (at least for the poor); that you cannot remove the sting of charity without also removing the incentive to independence; that you cannot produce industry by rewarding sloth.
These things, plus a newly keen sense of the social danger involved in breaking the connection between working and eating, have led us to see "workfare" as the only reasonable way to go -- even though it will cost more, not less, in tax dollars, as a result of daycare and other services.
I think the new conclusion is correct, but I also suspect that it is temporary. We may well wake up some years hence to discover the high costs (and the high failure rate) associated with trying to "transform" the poor. It might occur to us that the only reasonable thing to do is to establish eligibility and mail checks.
You can almost write the column or newspaper editorial right now: "Do we link Social Security checks to the behavior of the recipients? Then why don't we handle welfare that same simple, efficient and logical way?"
Evan Kemp wouldn't be the least bit surprised.