Post-Katrina is a time for changing

Rich Lowry
Posted: Sep 20, 2005 12:00 AM

It is the other flood: The outpouring of concern for the poor of New Orleans.

According to nearly every journalist in America, our consciousness has been raised about the invisible scourge of poverty in this country, and nothing is too much to ask when addressing the plight of the disadvantaged evacuees of New Orleans. They should get every form of aid possible — except, that is, assistance that might help give them more control over their lives.

The most controversial parts of the Bush aid package for New Orleans are the ones that attempt to free the poor from the tentacles of government bureaucracy. He wants to give the unemployed personal accounts to assist in their job search and create a $500 million program to fund school vouchers for displaced children to attend private schools. The current political climate is premised on the notion that no one should say "no" to any Katrina-related program, but Democrats will attempt to veto these proposals.

One argument that has always been advanced to block aid to poor families who want to send their children to private schools is that, in effect, the government can't afford it; it will starve public schools of funding. But no one in Washington has any credibility to say the federal government can't afford anything, since there is very little that this Congress and administration isn't funding fulsomely. Will $500 million for vouchers bleed public-education spending? That's hard to see when President Bush increased federal education spending 65 percent during his first term.

The objection to these Bush proposals isn't fiscal, but philosophical. They serve to undermine the principle of government dependency that underpins the contemporary welfare state, and to which liberals are utterly devoted. In a reversal of the old parable, liberals don't want to teach people how to fish if they can just give them federally funded seafood dishes instead.

The unemployed now get 26 weeks of federal unemployment benefits, which are often extended and also supplemented by various state programs. This is a social safety net that can become a trap. The longer and more generous benefits are, the less incentive someone has to find work (see Germany in particular and Western Europe generally for examples of the phenomenon at work). The Bush program would establish accounts that unemployed people could use as they see fit for education, training programs and child care to support their job search. If they find a job within 13 weeks they can keep up to $1,000 of the $5,000 account.

This would reverse the traditional incentive of unemployment benefits; it would do an end run around work-force investment boards, the state-level bureaucracies that now eat up federal dollars; it would allow each person to tailor federal aid to his own needs and strengths. It would be at least a step toward preserving individual initiative from the enervating clutch of bureaucracy.

The education vouchers, meanwhile, make private school available to kids who had suffered in the atrocious New Orleans public system and help preserve the choice many families had already made. Out of 248,000 students in the broader New Orleans area, 61,000 went to private schools. Opponents of the voucher proposals want to say to bereft families of those private-school students, "Congratulations, you lost everything, and we hope your children now get trapped in public schools on top of it."

New Orleans was partly a catastrophe of the welfare state, which has subsidized inner cities with countless billions of dollars throughout the past 30 years, with little to show for it except more social breakdown. The past few weeks should be the impetus for "bold, persistent experimentation," as Franklin D. Roosevelt put it, in the country's social programs. Instead, we are likely to get more spending on more of the same, and eventually everyone's attention will shift once again from the shame of New Orleans and the persistent failure of the welfare state.