Yes, there can be a downside to ever greater government provision. Many things done in the name of compassion—even compassionate conservatism—can have undesirable side effects. In the 1970s, for example, honorable people on both sides of the political divide tried to find ways with coping with persistent poverty. Surely, those who seemed trapped in poverty were living lesser lives. Was there not something government might do to alleviate this unhappy condition?
The massive transfers of wealth of the Lyndon B. Johnson era were sputtering out, having achieved little. And some people said then: “We declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” The federal government intervened in many communities, hoping to create a liberal vision of a great society.
In all too many cases, however, such interventions produced devastating results. Family breakdown in America can be traced to these interventions of the 1960s. At the time of Pearl Harbor in 1941, for example, 89% of black children were born to married parents. By the mid-1960s, however, the number of out-of-wedlock births to black mothers had doubled.
This alarming fact led social scientist Daniel Patrick Moynihan to sound a note of alarm. His 1965 Report on the Negro Family warned of terrible consequences if more and more children, especially young boys, were raised without their fathers’ wisdom and guidance.
Moynihan was shouted down. Liberal though he was, he had offended the emerging liberal orthodoxy. That orthodoxy said that decrying out-of-wedlock births was only another way of “blaming the victim.” Liberals demanded more and more federal social programs. The problem, in their view, was that government simply had not spent enough.
Conservatives recoiled. They objected not only to the mounting costs and the ever increasing tax burden on intact families struggling to keep their own heads above water, but also from a growing sense that federal social programs were hurting, not helping, the poor.
Thus was born the welfare reform movement. It came from a desire not just to cut costs, but also to give the poor a hand up not just a handout. Conservatives quoted even such a liberal lion as Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR had warned that the dole—as necessary as he saw it in a nation stricken by Depression—should be temporary. He even likened it to a narcotic — necessary after surgery, but dangerously addictive if overdosed or indulged in too long.