American readers, and those who have an interest in American politics, will recall the debate about welfare prior to the 1996 enactment of the landmark Welfare Reform Act (or, for you legal purists out there, the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act). The debate was long, wide-ranging and complex, but more or less two general opposing schools of thought dominated the debate.
The Welfare Advocates
The first school of thought was that brought to the table by activists and anti-poverty crusaders, the Welfare Advocates. The wide parameters of their thoughts on this subject are well-known, since they enjoyed largely uncontested dominance from around the time of publication of Michael Harrington’s The Other America until the rise of the conservative think-tanks during the Reagan years. In fact, a good summation of the arguments of this school can be found in the first “reader review” of this book currently found on Amazon.com. In it, reader “Lawyeraau” writes:
“This is the seminal work on the poor in America, analyzed within the context of government proffered, anti-poverty programs. It is a scathing critique and analysis of the war on poverty, where bold rhetoric and political grandstanding have often supplanted action. The author in his analysis categorizes poverty as a cultural and often institutional way of life that would require radical innovations, social planning, and long term financial investment, were the government really serious about eradicating poverty in America. What is amazing is that the arguments made by the author, when he wrote this book forty years ago, are still sound today.”
In writing this, Lawyeraau is undoubtedly right about one thing: the general outlook, diagnosis and analysis of poverty by the Welfare Advocates have changed little in the past forty years. For every piece of evidence that shows that the War on Poverty was America’s least effective war (by a wide margin) there are hundreds of new articles and tracts by welfare advocates complaining that no “real” war on poverty has yet been attempted (a bit like your average Trotskyite complaining that no “real” socialism has yet been attempted).
In any case, Welfare Advocates view poverty as the inevitable by-product of the modern capitalist system, and as a problem which is so wide-ranging in scope as to be a cultural phenomenon which cannot be attacked effectively without the full force of the state being used as a tool to combat it. The welfare advocate doesn’t think the War on Poverty failed due to defects so much as it failed due to under-funding.
For example, the following was part of a National Organization for Women press release on the 1996 Act at the time of its passing; its litany of complaints is a comprehensive overview of how Welfare Advocates saw the 1996 Act and its core provisions:
“In addition to massive funding cuts of $60 billion over six years in programs that would supply cash assistance and food stamps, the "reform" plan ends the welfare entitlement (the federal guarantee of assistance to the poor), requires recipients to find work within two years or perform community service, mandates a minimum of 30 work hours per week (for parents with children over age 6), imposes a lifetime limit on receipt of aid, and rewards states with financial bonuses for reducing their caseloads. The new act establishes a block grant program, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), funded at $16.4 billion for the period of 1997 through 2002, to replace Aid to Families with Children (AFDC), the cash assistance program which previously helped millions of poor families. Each state will now receive a lump sum of federal money to run its own welfare and work programs; many states have already filed waiver applications with the federal government outlining their new approaches to aid for the poor. Some waiver programs are even more restrictive in their requirements for poor families than is the new federal law. States have until July 1, 1997 to submit a plan to the federal government detailing how they will structure their welfare programs under TANF.
The core policy is a personal work requirement where the "head" of every family on welfare must work within two years, or the family will lose benefits. After receiving cash assistance or other help for two months, adults must begin performing community service work unless they have found regular jobs. However, states may choose not to establish a community service work requirement. There is now a lifetime welfare benefits limitation of five cumulative years, which states may reduce.”
To the Welfare Advocates, the 1996 Act was nothing less than the world turned upside down, where sacred cows like the “entitlement” to welfare—which had so recently appeared prominently in the nation’s Constitutional jurisprudence—were being eliminated by a gang of anti-children, pro-corporate profits gangsters.
The Welfare Reformers
The second school of thought was dominated by the deep thinkers of the Heritage Foundation, by all accounts the most influential conservative think-tank of all time. Beginning at around the time of the first election of Ronald Reagan, the policy analysts at Heritage began to subject the claims of the Welfare Advocates to scrutiny. Heritage’s mission was to dismantle, though scientific evidence and philosophical argument, the central tenants of the Welfare Advocate position. A typical example of Heritage’s work would be the following excerpt from “Why Congress Must Reform Welfare,” where author Robert E. Rector argued:
“The current debate over welfare reform involves conflicting visions of society and the impact of welfare on human behavior. Real reform will not be achieved until specific core assumptions which form the foundation of the modern welfare state have been overturned and discarded. From its onset, the liberal welfare state has been founded on faulty logic. This flawed logic, embedded in nearly all liberal thinking about welfare, runs something like this:
PREMISE #1: Children in families with higher income seem to do better in life.
PREMISE #2: Welfare can easily raise family income.
Conclusion: Therefore, welfare is good for kids.
From this logic has sprung a relentless thirty-year effort to raise welfare benefits, expand welfare eligibility, create new welfare programs, and increase welfare spending. The current proposal from Congress to slow down the automatic growth of welfare spending violates these cardinal tenets of the liberal welfare system and thus has led to cries of alarm from the welfare establishment.
In fact, each of the central tenets of modern welfare is misleading and deeply flawed. Together they become a recipe for a disastrous system of aid which harms rather than helps, aggressively crushing the hopes and future of an increasing number of young Americans.
It is useful to examine each of these cardinal liberal tenets individually. The first is that raising incomes is crucial to the well-being and success of children. The common liberal corollary to this premise is that poverty "causes" such problems as crime, school failure, low cognitive ability, illegitimacy, low work ethic and skills, and drug use. Hence, reducing poverty through greater welfare spending will reduce most social problems. History refutes this belief. In 1950, nearly a third of the U.S. population was poor (twice the current rate). In the 1920s, roughly half of the population was poor by today's standard. If the theory that "poverty" causes social problems were true, we should have had far more social problems in those earlier periods then we do today. But crime and most other social problems have increased rather than fallen since these earlier periods.”
While such facts seem commonplace today, to the point where they are now considered simple common sense, this was not so during the debate. While Congress seemed poised to act under then-new Republican dominance, the Clinton Administration, staffed with tons of Welfare Advocates, attempted to log-jam the legislation with reports that, among other things, predicted a sharp rise in the number of children living in poverty should the legislation carry. Rector concluded:
“In attacking the welfare reform legislation passed by the House and Senate, the Clinton Administration has embraced the central erroneous tenets of liberal welfarism. The Administration's report on welfare makes clear its belief that rapid automatic increases in welfare spending are essential to the well-being of children and that any attempts to slow the growth of future welfare spending will significantly harm children.14
The Administration report is founded unequivocally on the failed hypothesis that combating "poverty" through more generous welfare spending is crucial to children's future. This thinking is simply wrong. An expanded and more expensive welfare system will not benefit children. Instead, expansion of welfare leads to greater dependence and illegitimacy which, in turn, have devastatingly negative consequences on children. Those truly concerned with the welfare of children must seek a radical transformation of the welfare system aimed, not (as the Clinton Administration does) at increasing welfare spending and enrollment, but at reducing dependence and illegitimacy. That is the core of Congress's plan.” (Emphasis added)
It was this key point—the creation of a dependence culture which gave rise to social pathology and ingrained values which were destined to fail in the culture at large—that formed the centerpiece of the debate. Rather than lift people’s lives by lifting their income, the fact of welfare worked against the values so central to middle class success in the United States. This fact of dependence created a social class with interests and values set against the mainstream, thus dooming generation after generation to poverty.
The 1996 Act and its Aftermath
In the end, the Welfare Reformers won the debate, not least because their views were very much more in line with the mainstream of American opinion. The official header of the legislation described the act as:
“[A] comprehensive bipartisan welfare reform plan that will dramatically change the nation's welfare system into one that requires work in exchange for time-limited assistance. The law contains strong work requirements, a performance bonus to reward states for moving welfare recipients into jobs, state maintenance of effort requirements, comprehensive child support enforcement, and supports for families moving from welfare to work -- including increased funding for child care and guaranteed medical coverage.”
In other words, the days of sitting around waiting for one’s welfare check from the government were over. (Well, almost. See Heather Mac Donald’s brilliant City Journal piece on New York City and New York State welfare reform obstructionism, which has by-and-large kept the old Welfare Advocate school alive, with disastrous results for NYC’s poor: Welfare Reform in the Balance).
While members of Congress like Charlie Rangel were loudly telling anyone who would listen (and the MSM being the MSM that meant everyone) that the Republicans had just doomed thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of children to lives of poverty, the hard work of implementing the 1996 Act’s mandates slowing got off the ground.
The result of welfare reform has been nothing less than astounding, if not awe inspiring.
As is usually the case on the topic of welfare reform, Heather Mac Donald’s 2002 City Journal piece, Don’t Mess With Welfare Reform’s Success, best summarized the Act’s historic accomplishments:
“Congress’s [1996 Act] wager paid off handsomely. Asked to look for work in exchange for their welfare checks, hundreds of thousands of women found jobs. From 1996 to 1999, employment among the nation’s never-married mothers rose 40 percent. In 1992, only 38 percent of young single mothers worked; by March 2000, 60 percent of that group were employed. Another large portion of the caseload, faced with new participation requirements, simply decided that welfare was not worth the hassle. The result: a 52 percent drop in the caseload since August 1996, when TANF passed, to June 2001. Nearly 2.3 million families have left the rolls.
Sealing the reformers’ triumph, poverty has plummeted in tandem with welfare use. As Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institute reports, by 1999 child poverty among female-headed households had fallen to its lowest rate ever. Most notably, black children are now better off economically than at any time on record. So much for the myth that welfare is essential to keeping people from want.”
The fact that the Act spurred the largest reduction in black child poverty ever on record in the US and that literally millions of poor families have entered the middle class is one of Conservatism’s greatest victories since the rise of Ronald Reagan, which probably goes a long way to explaining why it mysteriously has disappeared from the pages of the MSM. In the end, though, one thing is clear: it was the fact of dependence by itself which bred pathologies and irresponsible behavior. When the fact of dependency ended, most welfare recipients were faced with the sort of real-life difficult questions that are every day issues for the bulk of the middle class. And when faced with those decisions, most people adapted their circumstances in such a way as to succeed within the new milieu.
Dependency Theory and the European Union
The United States is of two minds when it comes to our allies’ dependence upon American power. On the one hand, as is stated in the President’s National Security Strategy, the U.S. seeks to maintain its dominant position in the world. On the other hand, as similarly stated in the NSS, we also seek to strengthen our alliances and seek partnerships with other like-minded nations as crises in international relations arise. We see the inherent tension in these issues arise most often in connection with our relations with the nations of the European Union. Conservative commentators bemoan both the fact that the E.U. is attempting to become a strategic competitor with the U.S. and, at the same time, that the E.U. is not contributing enough in its defense spending to serve as an effective partner and ally.
The problem with these key dual interests is that they, while both good and worthy goals, are incompatible and fundamentally in conflict with each other. The United States can either be the world’s paramount economic, political and military power, leaps and bounds from any near competitor, or it can be the leading power among able allies; it cannot be both.
These dueling “goods”, like the types of competing interests that only democracies are able to hash out as explained by the late Isaiah Berlin, have different constituencies in the U.S. and, through the democratic process, we decide how much of one to have at the expense of the other. From a strictly military point of view, the view of the Department of Defense, the first is best in that the military security of the U.S. is always and can be always ensured. From the diplomatic point of view, the view of the Department of State, the second is best in that a breadth of available allies relieves the burden on the U.S., lowers our visibility as the key actor responsible for the entire world and, most importantly, enables us to succeed in ways that unilateral action makes impossible.
The debate continues and will continue, but, up to now, one thing has been missing from the intellectual combat: the effect of dependence on the European polities. What if, as in the individual sphere, dependence on the benevolence of the United States Government bred, in the international sphere, the same kind of pathologies seen in the welfare context? What if, rather than aiding the countries affected by American military dominance, we were harming them?
The current status of anti-Americanism in the Europe (and to a lesser extent, to borrow a phrase from the Diplomad, the Far Abroad) is too well known to bear full description here. The fact is that it is a given, so far as European public opinion is concerned, that the U.S. is a menace to world peace, and that the President in particular is a dangerous man. The depths of the E.U. world’s love affair with anti-American types such as Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore raise an interesting question: why?
If dependence theory holds in international relations, we have innocently caused such rampant anti-Americanism by trying to help. By taking over the tough issues of national security, defense strategy and multi-lateral relations, we have relieved numerous E.U. countries of their core responsibilities. In so doing, as with the welfare recipient of old, we removed the real-world check that forced those nations to deal with cold, hard reality in a grown-up serious manner. We have, as Victor Davis Hanson has so ably argued, created in the E.U. a permanent set of nations as sneering adolescent, constantly mocking and cursing “Dad” for doing what must be done since, at the end of the day, the adolescent is free to preen and pose and say anything that strikes his fancy, for he has no real responsibilities. Saying you’re for Kyoto, against landmines and, of course, against the War in Iraq is a lot easier if you’re not responsible for the world’s economy, defending South Korea or the number one target for terrorist groups seeking WMD.
From the almost-funny antics of German Foreign Minister (and cop beater) Joschka Fischer to the latest smear emitted by Broadcasting House, one is stuck by fact that none of it is taking place in the context of countries that are responsible for anything. Death camps spewing genocide pop up with distressing (and depressing) regularity in Europe, but it always is boys from Des Moines and not, say, Lyon or Madrid that put a stop to it.
Why not the French and Italians on the Korean DMZ for a few years? Are we even able to imagine the world of 60 years ago when the Canadians were responsible for a portion of the D-Day landings? If not, why not?
International Welfare Reform
The answer to solving the problem is to re-introduce our erstwhile allies to reality. Remove the American buffer, the American umbrella, the American security guarantee, and the nations of the E.U will have to grow up rather quickly. And like the welfare moms of yore, those nations will by-and-large begin to again make rational choices, and, more importantly, will begin again to re-acquaint themselves with the hard choices those in power must make.
Responsibility makes grown-ups. And in order for us to live once again in a world with grown-up allies, with grown-up political elites, we will have to reintroduce responsibility to the mix. This comes, of course, with a cost. By encouraging allies, building up their strength and (hardest of all) passing responsibility in certain areas to other nations we also necessarily lose direct control over those areas. To a nation accustomed to handling vital missions as disparate as ensuring the sea lanes near Singapore to keeping the peace in Kosovo, it may even prove nigh-impossible.
However, it must be done. At the end of the day, the US has neither the stomach nor the appetite to police the world (despite the catchy theme song). If we are to have allies, they will have to be full allies in the greatest sense of the term. As before, there will be those who will argue that the old system is the only way. As before, they will be wrong. If the U.S. were to pursue an aggressive policy of handing responsibility over concrete areas of present-day tasks to other nations, the fact of the U.S. unilateral withdrawal of the vastly over-rated “superpower” status will have a profound impact on the decision-making in the E.U.
It seemed counter-intuitive to many people in the early 90’s that by cutting off income support you could make people richer. And I suppose it seems similarly counter-intuitive that by stepping away from zones of responsibility the U.S. could increase its national security and standing in the world. But, as history teaches us, men are fundamentally rational; get the incentives right and the outcome is almost always what you’d expect. And right now it’s time for the E.U. to grow up.