Avoiding the welfare state

Posted on May 01, 2006 | Type: In the News
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Welfare reform is one of the great victories in recent times over relentlessly advancing government. But Arizona has lagged behind other states in getting welfare recipients into jobs. We need strong leaders to assure that Arizona doesn’t fall into the welfare trap again. 

Our modern welfare state was born in the 1960s out of the Great Society belief that massive welfare assistance was the only way to combat poverty. Leaders then felt, as the Advisory Council on Public Welfare put it in 1966, that the poor “cannot realistically be expected to become self-sustaining.” Low income people were actually encouraged to forego the difficulties of self-sufficiency and select welfare instead. Caseworkers were pushed to recruit new recipients. The welfare rolls jumped from 4.7 million to 9.7 million between 1966 and 1970. About half of these were black.

As John McWhorter points out in the April 2006 issue of The American Enterprise, economic conditions for black Americans were already improving. Racism was declining and America was experiencing sustained economic growth. Just as welfare was being introduced in the ’60s, black male unemployment dropped from 7.8 percent to 4.2 percent. Blacks had a history of self-improvement and personal decency. They were widely known for their strong families and work ethic. Their economic future appeared promising.


Sadly, welfare changed all that. Welfare had played a minor role in the lives of blacks prior to 1960. But then the welfare rolls exploded, fueled by misguided benevolence.

Millions of young women suddenly found they could qualify for substantial benefits simply by having a baby, so long as they didn’t get married or find a job. Welfare made work irrational and young men expendable. Large segments of America fell into indolence and dependence on government. Between 1964 and 1976, the number of black children born to unmarried mothers doubled. By 1995, more than 75 percent of black children were born out of wedlock.

The economic results were devastating. For black children living with two parents, conditions improved as anticipated. For them, the poverty rate actually dropped from 61 percent in 1959 to 13 percent in 1995. But for the majority of black children with single mothers, the 1995 poverty rate was 62 percent. Perhaps worse, a new generation of poor children was raised without fathers in a world where work and self responsibility were devalued. Lawlessness and drug dealing became the norm for them.

It makes no sense to “blame the victim” for this decline. Blacks, like all welfare recipients, were rationally responding to the perverse incentives that policymakers had created for them.

Politicians commonly assumed that nothing could be done, even as the economic destruction arising from welfare became obvious. But pressure for reform continued to mount until a conflicted President Clinton signed a bill in 1996 essentially turning welfare programs over to the states.

The states enthusiastically responded with programs based on the assumption that people are better off when they work. Welfare was no longer open-ended. Time limits applied and jobs were required. Critics like Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. hysterically charged that poor people would be dying in the streets. But they were totally wrong. Between 1995 and 2004, states reduced welfare rolls by an average of 60 percent. The proportion of children living in poverty fell by one-third. Illegitimacy rates began to drop.


In Arizona though, our caseload reduction was only 30 percent. We haven’t done as well as most other states in changing the welfare culture to an employment assistance culture. In our case, it may come back to bite us.

Here’s why. Regardless of how the current immigration debate turns out, it is obvious that our state in the coming years will see an upsurge in young, low income ethnic minority individuals with limited education and job skills. It is crucial for them and all of us to know: do we have an infrastructure that will encourage them to become productive participants in the American dream? Or, like in the ’60s, will we again kill their initiative and turn them into sullen, rights claiming dependents on government?

Our missing ingredient has been leadership at the top. The leading states in welfare reform have invariably had visionary, enthusiastic governors. Arizona’s recent governors haven’t really been on board. Our current governor wants to make sure all benefits are fully funded or expanded, but hasn’t shown a glimmer of interest in reducing the number of people eligible for them. She recently sent a letter to the federal government claiming the new work requirements were too tough!

This is too important to remain under the radar. It might make a good campaign issue.

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