Will Welfare Bill Break the Cycle of Poverty? : Liberty Means Self-Reliance--and Work

<i> Michael Novak is a theologian and an author who writes a column in Washington</i>

When Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Los Angeles) called the new welfare reform “slavefare,” he had it backwards. At last, a new welfare reform bill aims in principle to liberate able-bodied young men and women from government dependency. It aims to free at least a few of them to be like everybody else.

For non-welfare citizens, liberty means work. It means self-reliance and self-respect. Why not the able-bodied young on welfare? Why a double standard?

But the House is afraid to ask persons on welfare to work. It has watered down the work requirements so substantially that in this law, by 1994 only 20% of those receiving benefits will move from welfare to education or work. Even that would be a gain. But why so slow? Employers are crying out for workers with simple basic skills. The United States faces a severe labor shortage. Why so slow?


In a country this size, there are bound to be some citizens too ill, too injured or too temporarily down on their luck to stand on their own. Something extraordinary has knocked them over and they need help to get back on their feet. No one begrudges them that--any one of us might be in that position before our life slips through the hourglass.

Today, about half of those on welfare are only “temporaries.” They need help for a year or two, and then they’re back on their feet. For these citizens, often heroes in their own way, welfare surely works.

Yet many others--about half--seem imprisoned in welfare for years and years. The old system trapped these healthy young men and women and made them feel like purely passive recipients of government aid. Many report feeling like inmates in prison, hands held out for meals, or like serfs, heads bowed submissively before Lord Uncle Sam. To become free men and women--to become responsible for their own lives--is their basic human desire.

The old welfare system penalized this desire. The old system offered money for nothing in return. It treated citizens as though they were incompetent, powerless and bereft of any capacity for self-respect. It treated citizens as though they were incapable of adulthood, and it discouraged them from showing initiative, responsibility and true freedom of action. Its motto was: “Take your money, and be still.”

The new reform bill, inspired by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and enthusiastically welcomed by President Reagan, tries to end this decades-old embarrassment. It at least establishes the principle that welfare recipients can no longer be looked upon as passive “takers.” Henceforth, the healthy and able-bodied among them will be viewed as full citizens, all with pertinent duties.

Accepting this principle, Congress lacks the courage of its new conviction. It has done everything possible to treat able-bodied welfare recipients differently from other citizens.

The House can’t seem to see how important work is to human liberty and self-respect, and how badly, under severe economic competition with Japan and others, this nation needs the hands and minds of all its healthy and able-bodied citizens. More than ever, it needs those on welfare to show initiative, improve their skills and contribute to the common economic effort.

Moynihan notes that a great many mothers with children work full-time year ‘round, while a large majority of poor mothers with children still do not. That difference can no longer be defended politically. If poor mothers (and fathers) need training to find jobs, they should receive it. Most are eager to work just as much as other citizens, and so they should.

Moynihan says that healthy young citizens on welfare will henceforward be considered by law to be “temporarily unemployed.” If they need training, they will get it. If they need help in seeking jobs, it will be offered them. The transition from non-work to work will be supported, not penalized.

This new welfare reform will depend on each state’s diagnosing its own particular welfare problems and designing its own methods to solve them. Diversity is crucial. Sixty percent of all welfare cases are found in just 10 states (usually those with large cities). The other 40 states face problems different in magnitude and form. The strategies of New Hampshire and New York should be as different as their problems.

This new welfare reform does not yet put into full practice what it preaches. But it does put the camel’s nose of principle underneath the tent: “Equal duties to work; no more dependency.”

In 1980 President Reagan promised welfare reform, and just six months ago it looked as if this old campaign pledge would never be redeemed. The President’s slogan was “family, work, neighborhood, strength and peace.” It took this long to get “family and work” into the welfare law. So in one sense, Pat Moynihan “won one for the Gipper.” In another sense, the President has focused on the grief that Moynihan spotted 20 years ago, and has ever since kept in his heart and in ours.