The Real Welfare Problem

The Family Support Act, America's most recent effort at welfare reform, begins to take effect this year. The new law seeks to get single mothers off welfare through a combination of job training, work requirements, child care subsidies, and child support enforcement. Cutting the welfare rolls is, in turn, supposed to save the taxpayer money while enhancing the self-respect of single mothers and their children.

Like countless earlier attempts at welfare reform, the new law is unlikely to change much. Judging by the experience of states that have already established compulsory training programs and work requirements, it will not save the taxpayer much money. Nor will it move many single mothers off the welfare rolls. The reason is simple: single mothers do not turn to welfare because they are pathologically dependent on handouts or unusually reluctant to work. They turn to welfare because they cannot get jobs that pay any better than welfare. Since the new law will not do much to change this fact, it will not get many single mothers off welfare.

Meanwhile, the nation's 3.7 million welfare families confront an urgent problem: they do not get enough money from welfare to pay their bills. Nor can most single mothers earn enough to cover their expenses. The only way most welfare recipients can keep their families together is to combine work and welfare. Yet if they report that they are working, the welfare department will soon reduce their checks by almost the full amount of their earnings, leaving them as desperate as before. The only way most recipients can make ends meet, therefore, is to supplement their welfare checks without telling the welfare department.

Welfare benefits have always been low, and their purchasing power has fallen steadily since the mid-1970s. Most people assume that low benefits just force recipients to live frugally. But low benefits have another, more sinister effect that neither conservatives nor liberals like to acknowledge: they force most welfare recipients to lie and cheat in order to survive. Conservatives ignore this problem because admitting that welfare recipients cannot survive without cheating would weaken the case for cutting benefits. Liberals ignore the problem because admitting that welfare recipients cheat for any reason whatever reduces public sympathy for their plight.

In reality, however, welfare mothers operate on the same moral principles as most other Americans. They think their first obligation is to care for their children, and they assume this means providing food, shelter, heat, electricity, furniture, clothes, and an occasional treat. Since welfare seldom gives recipients who follow the rules enough money to pay for these necessities, they feel entitled to break the rules. Welfare recipients also think that working ought to make them better off. Since the welfare system does not allow them to keep what they earn if they report their earnings, they feel entitled to ignore the reporting requirement.

We have, in short, created a welfare system whose rules have no moral legitimacy in recipients' eyes. This feeling is not confined to second-generation welfare recipients in poor neighborhoods -- the so-called

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