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Earning One's Keep

Making the poor deserving

Illinois Times

September 9, 1993

Government welfare payments are always an issue in Illinois when they go to the poor or to people of color, seldom so when they go to the propertied, farmers, or war industries. “Twas ever thus, as is confirmed by this piece from 1993.


It may be September, but welfare reform—that hardiest of perennials in Illinois' legislative garden—is again in bloom. This season it takes the form of negotiations on how much, and how, to give more money to the Chicago public school system. Pillars of fiscal probity such as Pate Phillip insist that no more aid should be forthcoming unless the teachers agree to change work rules and otherwise comport themselves like upright citizens rather than Streets and Sanitation layabouts. Such conditional aid is a newish concept as applied to the problem of chronic dependency in institutions, but it is old news among welfare reformers in some states. In New Jersey and Wisconsin, for example, teen-aged welfare recipients are being told they must remain in school or lose their checks, or forego further benefits if they have more than a prescribed number of children, or in some other way shape up.


Making AFDC grants conditional upon a teen mother staying in school or a parent making sure is kid gets his shots is not unreasonable. But it is foolish to expect programs meant to produce responsible, self-sufficient citizens out of clients who are treated as if they are incapable of responsibility and self- sufficiency and (not incidentally) rewarded even if they aren't.


More significantly, these programs prepare welfare recipients for a world that no longer exists. Demanding that teen-aged welfare mothers get a job ignores the fact that, for the very young, the untrained, ill-educated, socially isolated, working a little harder is not enough. Jobs for poor people used to be where poor people lived, in the factory districts of cities; it is why slums were always near factories. Today jobs are too far away to get to from where most poor people live—assuming that unskilled jobs paying*enough to support a family exist at all. Welfare moms know all this but legislators don't, which suggests that being socially useless while living on state money is not a vice restricted to the underclass.


The aim of welfare reform is to save money, but most get- off-the-dole programs end up costing more money, certainly in the short term. As the purchasing power of the state's basic AFDC grant has shrunk and medical care costs for children zoom, the real incentive to parents in receiving welfare is its automatic eligibility for Medicaid coverage for one's children—benefits seldom offered by low-paying entry-level jobs.


Welfare professionals know that, and to keep Medicaid from being an incentive for parents to stay on welfare, they have changed the regulations to let people keep their Medicaid eligibility (usually for a specified time) after they go to work and leave AFDC. Lowering the costs of cash grants for families thus adds to welfare costs in other departments. We are accustomed to reforms that don't work, but reforms that actually make worse the problem they are meant to solve are real innovations.


To date the results of conditional aid reforms have not been impressive. A requirement in one state that welfare teens stay in school or lose their checks boosted graduation rates by a scant 19 percent It is too soon to say what long-term effects this achievement will have for those one in five, but a diploma from any of this country's typical inner city schools is, by itself, hardly a passport to the good life.


In a crucial sense it hardly matters whether conditional aid actually works. It is a balm to the aggrieved Puritan who dwells in all good Americans and who is outraged by the thought that someone, somewhere may be getting something for nothing that they aren't getting too. Most agree that the welfare mother differs from the Social Security recipient, the ghost payroller, the union pensioner, the defense contractor as not having "earned" her stipend. The distinction is dubious, especially in the case of never-had-a-job wives who draw Social Security benefits earned by their spouses. In any event it is slander to assert that welfare recipients don't earn their checks. Poor children—and welfare is dispensed, remember, in the name of state-dependent children—earn their keep by enabling the rest of us to feel good about helping them, and by proving that our prejudices about their parents—the black ones, the poor ones, the female ones —are well-founded.


Indeed, making probity the basis of the compact between citizen and state seems a principle we would be wise to extend to all the latter's doings. For example, the state should require that a home buyer who purchases property in a racially segregated neighborhood is not eligible for his state income tax exemption for property taxes. This is no more offensive than expecting that a welfare mother live up to state standards of good parenting in exchange for her AFDC check, but is likely to return a good many more dollars to the General Fund.


Similarly, old people would get homestead exemptions on their property taxes only if they showed evidence that they really did, as they so loudly assert, Help Build This Country. The calculus of citizenly contribution could become quite complex (does two votes for Reagan wipe out a stint in the Army?) and I look forward to an invigorating debate.


Legislators are second only to opinion columnists in their enthusiasm for telling other people how to live. Conditional aid for welfare mothers in particular has brought out the Sunday school teacher in many of them. Nevertheless, Illinois lawmakers as a body are not as committed to virtue—even that of people other than themselves—than are their brethren in other states. To date none of the draconian proposals introduced to the General Assembly has passed.


Lately, not much of anything has passed the General Assembly. Since the members are taking taxpayers' money, they ought to earn it by coming up with some policies that work once in a while. You know, just often enough so the rest of us can't accuse them of being irresponsible loafers. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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