The Myth That Welfare Policies Don't Work

By , Martha F. Davis is a staff attorney at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. Mimi Abramovitz is a professor at Hunter College School of Social Work in New York.

GEORGE BUSH'S reelection campaign seems to be largely based on attacking government programs designed to help the poor. The "welfare mother" has become the "Willie Horton" of the 1992 presidential race. President Bush even claims that Great Society initiatives of the 1960s cause poverty and are responsible for recent violence in America's cities - ignoring the impact of his own economic policies.

Instead of working to build successful anti-poverty programs, the president has presided over massive reductions in federal funds for public housing, public education, and other programs. Most recently, the Bush administration endorsed proposals that would cut benefits of welfare recipients who fail to meet certain behavioral standards, such as marrying, forgoing childbirth, or ensuring that their children attend school.

This approach of degrading anti-poverty programs flies in the face of clear evidence that poverty can be effectively addressed through well-designed government policies. Incredibly, among the Western democracies only the United States failed to give its poor a measure of income security during the 1980s.

Recommended: Fifty years after 'war on poverty': Who's poor now? (+video)

Tim Smeeding's and Lee Rainwater's study of income security during the 1980s found that Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Sweden, West Germany, the Netherlands, and France all did a better job of cushioning poverty than the US. Taking into account income from the government tax and spending programs, poverty fell by 16.5 percent abroad compared to 6.6 percent in the US.

US policies had the smallest impact on poverty for every subgroup studied, including children and single parents. The Joint Center for Political Studies also found that US poverty was more widespread, long-term, and severe during the 1980s than in continental Europe, even though the US had better economic growth and unemployment rates.

As for welfare, the US programs for poor women lifted less than 5 percent of single mothers with children out of poverty, compared to 89 percent in the Netherlands, 81 percent in Sweden, 75 percent in Britain, 50 percent in France, 33 percent in Germany, and 18.3 percent in Canada.

The European programs reduce poverty more than ours because they invest more money, provide higher minimum benefits, pay child allowance independent of work effort (a program found in every modern nation but the US and Japan), recognize the special needs of single-parent families and rely on comprehensive programs for all people rather than income-tested programs just for the poor.

If done right, social programs can work in this country as well. After studying child-care, health-care, and family social-service initiatives in the US, social scientist Lisbeth Schorr concludes that programs will accomplish their stated goals if they include early intervention, class and cultural sensitivity, a well-trained staff, and comprehensive, intensive services.

In studies of welfare-to-work programs in numerous cities around the country, the Manpower Resources Demonstration Corporation has also found that, if properly designed, well-funded programs can be successful in increasing income and employment. And even Bush has acknowledged the successes of Head Start, Medicare, and Job Corps in improving poor people's lives and opportunities.

Instead of poor people's "behavior" as the culprit, academic studies confirm common sense: Job loss and decreased earnings are the most important factors precipitating poverty. All the marriages, contraceptives and mandatory work programs in the world won't address our nation's serious economic decline, and the resulting increases in poverty.

What's more, attempts to use benefits to coerce welfare recipients to marry or to forgo childbirth won't even succeed on their own terms. In a 1984 study, Harvard professors David Ellwood and Mary Jo Bane found that welfare recipients, just like the middle class, make intimate life choices based on a host of personal and social factors that do not boil down to mere money. And in practice, states have cut benefits with no discernible effect on marriage or family size.

We need national leaders who will stop labeling the poor as irresponsible freeloaders. During the past decade the Reagan and Bush administrations have endorsed cutbucks in social programs, opposed tax increases, and denigrated welfare mothers as unmotivated, immoral members of the so-called "underclass." It is these policies, not programs of the 1960s, that have led to increased poverty and decay in the nation's cities.

The next president of the US will be strategically positioned to re-educate the public to understand that properly designed and adequately funded social programs do reduce poverty, help people find jobs, and assure the health and productivity of the labor force.

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