For a Wider Debate on Welfare State : Reagan Could Stimulate an Examination of the Poverty Trap


The best of Ronald Reagan may be yet to come. He wants to break new ground in defining the role of a former President. In that new role he may be able to make a contribution as great as any he has made as President.

With a new career on the “mashed potato circuit” Reagan wants to “fight for the principles in which I believe.” He hopes to stimulate a “great debate” focused on the need to “help America find a way out of the trap of the welfare state.” “Twenty years ago” says the former President, “the government declared war on poverty and poverty won.” “Too many people became dependent on government payments and lost the moral strength that has always given the poor the determination to climb America’s ladder of opportunity.”

With 32.5 million Americans in poverty, with more than 20% of our children living in poverty, the former President is certainly right to call our attention to “poverty and the welfare state.” Let’s consider some of the questions that a debate should include.

--With sustained economic growth over the last six years, why is the poverty rate now higher than in any year in the 1970s. The average poverty rate during the Nixon, Ford and Carter Administrations was 11.9%. Why has the poverty rate averaged 14.2% over the last eight years? Why has the increase in poverty rates, for all families including black families, occurred among both married-couple families and female-headed families? Why has the poverty rate for the black elderly risen from 31% to 33.9% and for the Latino elderly from 22.5% to 27.4% over this last year when the poverty rate for white elderly has declined?


--Are the welfare programs that are intended to aid the poor a major cause of the poverty they are intended to relieve? More than 20% of all American children live in poverty. The welfare program intended to assist poor children and their families is called Aid To Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). Given the low cash benefits provided, that program removes only 3% of poor children from poverty. It is difficult to imagine a less successful anti-poverty program. Yet, indignation about the growing impoverishment of the nation’s children is hardly detectable in the criticism one hears about welfare. Are we more offended by the “dependency” of families who rely on government than we are by their “poverty”? In 1986, 52 of every 100 poor children received an AFDC benefit. In 1979, 72 of every 100 poor children received such aid. Those offended by “dependency” will find “progress” in these numbers. Those offended by unrelieved poverty will see these same numbers as a serious deterioration in social responsibility.

We need a great debate to consider which is the greater evil, the unrelieved poverty of our children or their reliance upon government for assistance.

--There is a growing consensus among liberals and conservatives that the current welfare system is inadequate. That consensus was apparent in the recent enactment of welfare-reform legislation by Congress with the support of the President. The new law speaks of getting people to work, of promoting self-reliance and independence through education, training, child care. Are we really prepared to go beyond criticism to genuine welfare reform? Or, are we satisfied to criticize what exists so we can cut budgets while avoiding real change because it costs too much, thus leaving the poor with criticism and little else? If we examine what Congress and what the state of California have done recently in the name of welfare reform the answer becomes evident. In both cases, much is promised but very little is given. Education, training, child care, transitional medical care, real work and independence from the dole provide the imagery. With $3.35 billion federal dollars provided over a five-year period we have $700 million per year to change welfare from a program of hand-outs to a program that will promote independence and get people to work. Who is kidding whom?

To imagine what $700 million per year will buy for the nation’s welfare recipients, it is useful to consider that in the implementation of California’s welfare-reform legislation Los Angeles County estimated the annual cost of providing work-related education, training and social services to its AFDC population at $200 million per year. Los Angeles has 3%-4% of nation’s population.


--Much has been made of the need to require people to leave welfare and to go to work. The popular imagery is of a welfare system that “sucks people in, saps their moral strength, and leaves them dependent and unmotivated.” It is hard to find that attitude when you talk to real people. In 1,046 random personal interviews conducted by UCLA with AFDC recipients in Los Angeles County 85% wanted to volunteer to participate in a program that would help them prepare for and find work. With attacks from the political right on their dependency and moral degeneracy and promises from the political left unsupported by resources it is easy to wonder who is using welfare to cheat on whom.

We need a great debate on poverty and the welfare state. We need to understand the cost to the nation of having 32.5 million of our citizens and 20% of our children living in poverty. The cost of doing nothing is much more than zero and when considered in the long run may exceed the cost of genuine reform. Still it is difficult to focus our attention on what seems so complex and so remote from our daily lives.

We need a charismatic leader, a great communicator, someone unfettered by political ambition who can command public attention to what is surely one of the most important and most actively avoided subjects in our public life.

We need a former president.