Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A good government success story

In the comments to the previous post, my friend Mark Harden had this to say about welfare reform:

...what, exactly, the success of welfare reform was all about: removing the culture of dependency which, among other things, condemned two generations of poor blacks to poverty and misery. Welfare prior to 1995 was not "care" for citizens, Ann: it actively HARMED them. For example: welfare regulations encouraged single motherhood. Single motherhood is the greatest single factor correlating with poverty...higher than race, higher than lack of education. And your "caring" welfare program encouraged it.

By the mid-1990s the welfare system was in need of reform. It was expensive, inefficient and prone to abuse. But to say that it “actively harmed” people is utterly ridiculous. Believe it or not, but poverty existed long before the federal government stepped in and started passing out welfare checks. To say that welfare condemned people to poverty is like saying that the firefighters responding to a three-alarm fire were somehow the cause of the fire. They may not be spraying their water in the most efficient manner to put out the fire, but they certainly did not start the fire. And shutting off their hoses and walking away will not make the fire go away. Neither will poverty go away if the government shuts down its poverty programs and quits passing out checks.

Prior to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, poor people were not “trapped” by welfare. It was not the monthly subsistence checks that were holding them down. Rather it was the lack of any other means to pull themselves out of poverty. What they needed other than just the threat of being cut off from welfare was the education, job training and child care programs that became available once the welfare reform act began redirecting money in that direction. It was those Clinton-era programs, combined with the Clinton-era prosperity that helped welfare reform make such dramatic strides in getting people off the welfare rolls. In other words, good government programs helped to fix a problem that was clogging up another good government program.

But Mark, unfortunately, is one of those conservatives afflicted with a malady known as Government Derangement Syndrome which makes him see all government progams as inherently evil. It is similar to Bush Derangement Syndrome which he often accuses me of having only about 10-times worse. (Poor Mark is also beset by a number of other similar maladies including Hillary Clinton Derangement Syndrome; Liberal Media Derangement Syndrome; Michael Moore Derangement Syndrome; and Democratic Presidential Nominee Derangement Syndrome among others.)

Thomas Frank in yesterday’s NYTimes had a facinating article about how the conservatives’ trashing of government suits their long-term interests even when it is their own people (Jack Abramoff, Tom DeLay, etc.) who are doing the trashing. This is because it promotes overall cynicism about the effectiveness of government and plays into the hands of the GOP, the anti-government party of today.

What really worries me, though, is that our response to all this may be to burrow deeper into our own cynicism, ultimately reinforcing the gang that owns the patent on cynicism and thus setting us up for another helping of the same. This may not be apparent now, with the identity of the culprits still vivid and the G.O.P. apparently heading for a midterm spanking. Recall, though, that while the short-term effects of the Watergate scandal were jail sentences for several Republicans and the election of many Democrats to Congress in 1974, its long-term effect was the destruction of public faith in government itself and the wave that swept in Ronald Reagan six years later.

Welfare reform is actually a success story for good government, but Mark would rather portray it as a failure of government so that people will continue to support anti-government politicos from his party. And unfortunately, this would be bad for our country, whether Mark can see it or not.

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