The hitchhiker sitting on his duffel bag on the side of the road doesn't get even a glance from me, unless his crutches are in plain sight. If he is standing up with a hopeful look on his face, I'll think about giving him a lift. If he is walking while he's thumbing, it's a good bet I'll pick him up.
If you share my attitude toward hitchhikers, you'll have no trouble understanding H. R. Crawford's new legislative proposal.
The D.C. councilman has introduced a bill to require employable welfare recipients to accept employment, including make-work jobs, if necessary, or else lose their eligibility.
As with my hitchhiker, Crawford's tough-minded attitude would exempt the genuinely disabled; it would penalize those who wait indolently for assistance, and it would reward those who undertake serious effort in their own behalf.
It is, in short, a "workfare" measure of the sort that decent-minded people used to oppose. But the resistance is fading as more of us come to understand the damage that results from breaking the connection between income and exertion.
The recent Bill Moyers special and The Washington Post series on teen- age mothers offered graphic illustrations of the problem. Young girls (and grownups, too, for that matter) see less reason to practice birth control if they know that their children will be provided for by the state.
The young men who father their babies (and who frequently are fiercely proud of having done so) do not have to consider supporting their "families" -- they may even live off those families -- when you and I take care of them. And marriage, which under other circumstances would be a practical necessity, becomes a matter of seldom-exercised choice.
The doleful (pun irresistible) results include unprecedented numbers of fatherless households -- and virtually fatherless neighborhoods, undisciplined children with no sense of the connection between working and eating, the creation of an essentially permanent underclass and, our noble intentions notwithstanding, an increase in poverty.
Crawford and his bill's cosponsor, Betty Ann Kane, are no more motivated by a wish to punish welfare recipients than you are motivated by a wish to punish your children when you insist that the regularity of their allowance has some connection to the performance of their household chores.
The proposal, says Crawford, "is intended to give its participants increased self-sufficiency, a better potential for future improvement in the standard of living for their children and an opportunity to make choices and accept responsibility. . . . We can ill afford to waste another generation."
The exemptions embodied in the bill are the obvious ones: those with "serious" mental and physical handicaps; those who already work at least 80 hours per month at the minimum wage; those who are required to stay home to look after incapacitated family members and pregnant women within three months of their due date. (Such women would have to re-register within six months following delivery.)
"However," he says, "I believe that if a teen-ager drops out of school because of pregnancy or other nonmedical reason, she should be required to obtain gainful employment instead of relying on public assistance."
That's harsh stuff, but so is the reality his bill addresses.
It is by no means a perfect proposal, but it does manage to avoid one mistake we have made, which is to model our welfare rules too much on the model of middle-class people who are temporarily in hard straits. Such people need no incentive beyond their own unaccustomed dependency to get off the dole as quickly as possible.
But people can also become accustomed to dependency, and that problem is exacerbated when living on welfare makes more economic sense than taking a low-wage job that seems to be headed nowhere.
That walking hitchhiker may not be getting anywhere, either, but he's a lot more likely to get a lift than the guy who just sits there.