The changes in welfare reform

Posted: May 01, 2002 12:00 AM
While some extra money can help the downtrodden, it cannot raise their children. This profound revelation is at the heart of the administration's proposal to tweak the welfare system by increasing the work requirements and funneling federal resources into state-run programs geared toward strengthening family values. These suggested amendments come on the heels of a new three-year study called "Growing up in Poverty: New Lives for Poor families?" which was published by researchers at Berkley, Columbia, Stanford and Yale universities. The study indicates that welfare recipients continue to have trouble paying bills and parenting. The last significant changes to the welfare system came in 1996, when Congress mandated that recipients work at least 30 hours a week and limited the amount of time someone could remain on the dole. Previously, the welfare system functioned as a bottomless entitlement program that dispensed money to the unemployed like some government-subsidized tranquilizer. The 1996 reforms won bipartisan support and uniform praise for instilling a sense of urgency for getting people off welfare, a system that did little more than reinforce failure. According to this recent study, however, cutting welfare rolls alone does little to confront the problems that sustain poverty. That's why the Bush administration has suggested retooling the welfare laws, with an eye toward those children trapped in the cycle of poverty and despair. Specifically, the administration is proposing to allocate $200 million a year in federal subsidies earmarked for state-run programs designed to bolster stable marriages. Additional resources would be used to empower charities and religious organizations to provide positive role models or even the expectation of success in poor neighborhoods. In short, the administration hopes to reform the welfare system by strengthening the family unit and thus affixing value, hope and meaning to a child's existence. The proposed changes are bound up in the broader concept of "compassionate conservatism," a term coined by political theorist Marvin Olasky and later popularized by the president. A brief recap: After Olansky spent much of 1999 inspecting charities and anti-poverty policy programs across the country, he conceptualized a compelling vision for reinventing the social welfare system. The gist of Olansky's vision: The government has traditionally sought to ameliorate poverty by funneling billions of dollars into public education, assisted housing and crime prevention. But "economic redistribution by itself," maintains Olansky, "cannot fight poverty effectively because it does not affect the attitudes that frequently undergird poverty." What Olansky is saying is that poverty is also a matter of brutal social conditioning: A little boy watches his mother sell drugs, or his brother join a gang. He watches his teachers succumb to frustration. All around him, he sees hope twisting inward. His own passions become stifled beneath this negative landscape that crushes all expectation of other possibilities. This rousing point forms the embryo of the proposed changes in the welfare system. And while the 1996 reforms helped cut the welfare roll and stimulate independence amongst America's underprivileged, the administration understands that there is still much work to be done. By helping families and charitable social organizations to flourish, the government can stimulate direction, inspiration and independence amongst America's underprivileged. In short, they can empower those organizations and institutions (e.g., family, church, etc.) most apt to nurture the expectation of other possibilities. Then - and only then - will the situation truly improve.