Earning One's Keep
Making the poor deserving
September 9, 1993
Government welfare payments are always an issue in Illinois when they go to the poor or to people of color, but a program 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, teenaged 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 teenaged 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 homebuyer 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. □