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On Ukraine and on Welfare, Morale Trumps Materiel

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Morale matters more than materiel.

Again and again, experts' predictions, based on readily quantifiable data and logical extrapolations, have proved disastrously wrong. The phenomenon is seen in apparently unrelated areas in foreign affairs and domestic policy. Examples: Ukraine and welfare.


The U.S. intelligence experts who accurately predicted the Russian invasion of Ukraine were wrong about the consequences. They thought that Russia, with more troops and more firepower, would sweep into Kyiv and occupy half the country. The United States closed down its embassy in Kyiv and offered to fly President Volodymyr Zelensky to safety.

He didn't accept the experts' advice. "I need ammunition, not a ride," he said, and his daily videos from Kyiv emboldened the Ukrainians' morale, and the Russians scooted out of Kyiv.

Now, half a year later, Ukrainian forces have recovered thousands of square miles from Russian occupiers, according to the Institute for the Study of War. They cleverly threatened an offensive in the south, which forced Russians to retreat from one key city, then sent troops advancing rapidly eastward as demoralized Russian troops scampered away.

It was "a massive moral collapse of Russian forces in Kharkiv oblast," near the Russian border, one observer noted, quoting Napoleon: "In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter."

Ukrainians' morale is high: They are trying to protect their country from brutal destruction and arbitrary rule. If Russian President Vladimir Putin hoped to convince Ukrainians they should be part of Russia, his invasion seems to have had precisely the opposite effect, strengthening national loyalties in what has been a separate country only since 1991.


Similarly, Putin has gotten the U.S. and many NATO allies to behave as if Ukraine were part of that alliance and to get Russia's neighbors Finland and Sweden to join NATO after staying outside it for 73 years.

The outcome of the Ukraine war is not clear, and, as the Wall Street Journal's Walter Russell Mead argues, there's a danger Putin could employ tactical nuclear weapons. But the expert calculations of Putin and, apparently, the American intelligence community have been proved wrong. Morale can matter more than materiel.

That's been true of welfare as well. Welfare reform in the 1990s, pioneered by Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, pushed nationally by Speaker Newt Gingrich and signed (after two vetoes) by Bill Clinton in 1996, imposed work requirements on single-mother recipients. Critics, including the often eerily prescient Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, predicted that mothers and children would starve in the streets.

That didn't happen. Earlier this week, the New York Times' veteran welfare expert Jason DeParle reported on a New York Times-Child Trend study showing that child poverty, based on a Census Bureau definition, dropped 59% between 1993 and 2019. The decline was greatest, by the way, during the Clinton and Trump administrations.


Increased government transfer payments, like the earned income and child tax credits, played some part in this. But, as the American Enterprise Institute's Scott Winship argues, the lion's share -- he says 90% -- of the increase in family income among the lowest-education mothers came from increased employment income.

Pre-welfare reform, before effective work requirements, welfare rolls plateaued for two decades, with tragically large numbers of recipients' sons committing crimes and daughters having children outside marriage. But while work requirements were in effect, violent crime rates plummeted and teenage unwed births plunged as well.

It appears that a working single mother, accepting the discipline of going to work and demonstrating the nexus between effort and reward, has been a positive example and has provided a salutary structure for her children despite being outside the home more hours than a jobless single mother. Morale matters as well as material income.

Some Democrats in Congress and on the state level have tried to pare back welfare reform's work requirements, and DeParle's study doesn't measure the effects of COVID-19 lockdowns. A continued positive trend is not assured.


But something is to be learned from the common lessons of Ukraine and welfare reform.

In both cases, experts were unable to model the responses in people's minds and quantify the power of what was in their hearts. People's pride in a nation under brutal attack, their pride in earning success day in and day out on the job and at home -- those cannot easily be modeled or measured. The potential in people's hearts can escape detection by experts and may be appreciated better, though without precision, by ordinary people.

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