Opinion: Daily Journal

Silly Welfare Reform Analysis

RALEIGH – The same company that publishes Congressional Quarterly also produces Governing, a monthly magazine on state and local government that I have read for a dozen years now.

For the most part, Governing does a pretty good job of providing factual reporting and insightful analysis about public policy issues, although it does tend to pitch things to its target audience of government employees at the expense of the rest of us. Unfortunately, when the magazine addresses contentious issues like school choice and social policy, it too often does little but reproduce the conventional liberal wisdom.

The March 2002 issue falls into this trap on the topic of welfare reform. In a cover story by Jonathan Walters that does a good job of providing facts and figures on the topic, there is a critically important word that, as far as I can determine, was left out: marriage.

The thesis of the piece is that, while welfare reform has succeeded in pushing people on the public dole into the workforce, it hasn’t really ended their dependence on government entitlements. So those now working are still receiving Medicaid, child-care support, housing assistance, and other services. The culprit, Walters suggests, is low-wage employment. “The bottom line on [welfare reform] after six years is that it has traded a system that inspired generations of total dependence on government for one that requires partial dependence in the form of permanent, piecemeal assistance to a huge class of working poor,” he writes.

First of all, there is no “huge class of working poor.” Few households with at least one member working full-time – that is, at least 40 hours a week – stays consistently below the poverty line. What Walters and the liberal activists he quotes really mean is that there are many workers in a gray zone abovethe official poverty line but below an income that would allow the family to be “self-sufficient.”

Here’s the rub. Whoever said that a single high-school dropout – male or female – with two or more kids is a viable economic unit? No society has ever thought so. The assumption that such households can and should be made “self-sufficient” by government programs is fallacious. It is expensive and time-consuming to rear children. That’s why people ought to try doing it only after finishing their high-school education, getting some work experience, and getting married.

Failing that, a single parent without highly marketable skills faces some tough real-world choices. They include moving in with parents or relatives, setting up a household with another single parent to share costs, or giving up their children for adoption.

We have to stop thinking that government can stand in for a spouse or a parent. It can’t.