Welfare is a prime example. Democrats, out of habit or conviction, fell back into old patterns in the stimulus package, providing states with an 80 percent subsidy to expand their welfare roles. Some argue that the broader, pre-reform safety net acted as an "automatic stabilizer," pumping funds into the economy during a recession without need for bothersome political decision-making. By this logic, the most stable economy would have the poor on a universal dole.
But this, we know from experience, is no service to the poor themselves. Human beings are made for family, work and independence. The old welfare system was the swift solvent of all these commitments. There is a large difference between temporarily expanding food stamps and weakening the most successful, bipartisan policy reform of the last 15 years. We will not purchase economic stability with increased dependence -- and even if we could, it is unwise to trade the character of citizens for any economic benefit.
There are, in fact, creative new approaches rattling around the ideological spectrum -- programs to subsidize asset-building among the needy instead of encouraging debt (a la Fannie Mae), to promote financial education, to give states more flexibility and resources in targeting help to low-income areas, to foster the transforming commitment of a father in the life of a child, to help with the reintegration of ex-prisoners into society, to make work pay, to broadly encourage charitable giving in a time of need. A strong list of 25 ideas was recently developed by the Poverty Forum (which, by way of disclosure, I helped to organize). This effort involved poverty experts from the left and the right defining areas of policy agreement -- a timely demonstration that such efforts are not futile. Many of the proposals set out an appealing ideal: the cooperation of government and civil society to serve and build a community.
I suspect that Congress will eventually be forced to reconsider its actions on welfare, which received little serious debate and no public attention. But Republicans and Democrats should be open to common-ground alternatives. On poverty, it is time for haste to yield to creativity.
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