The Real Reason Welfare Failed

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AMERICANS have long believed that in the inner city -- two words that mean black, poor, and dangerous -- the family is going to pieces. Government, we are told, has made matters worse through programs that promote disunity, illegitimacy, and dependence.

But is public spending really to blame? Perhaps, but not for the reasons most people think.

Families have always adapted to government incentives. The pioneer family is often mentioned by those who yearn for a mythical past when men were upright, women sustained the home, and children were respectful. But it was subsidized by massive federal land grants and state-sponsored investments. The exalted ''Leave It to Beaver'' family of the 1950s was partly the result of government disbursements: GI benefits -- federal housing loans and education payments -- that fostered family self-sufficiency.

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Such government allotments were never classified as welfare but, in essence, that is what they were. Furthermore, they worked.

No inevitable connection exists between government spending, inefficiency, and deleterious social consequences. When Americans decry the effect of government programs on family values, they are not thinking about past benefits that flowed to them or their relatives. Instead, they are thinking about the close to 5 million households -- most of them headed by women -- who receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Even advocates despair that government spending has failed to lift these families out of poverty, reinforcing instead a cycle of idleness and deviant behavior.

Why doesn't welfare succeed? The answer to that question would be obvious if we removed our blinders. While public spending on middle-class families in the first half of this century has been lavish, it has been miserly toward the poor. Despite a reputation as a burden on the taxpayer, AFDC consumes only 1 percent of the national budget. While AFDC provides some support for children, it is insufficient. This support has had an ironic consequence: the widespread, but mostly erroneous, conviction that women choose motherhood in order to swindle the government.

However, deficient and misguided public spending is only a small part of the problem; economic exclusion is a larger culprit. More lethal than guns and crack cocaine are the effects of redlining and diminished investment in poor neighborhoods. Job loss in manufacturing, the effect of global economic competition, has worsened the situation. Inner-city families are not so much crumbling as adjusting to compromised welfare programs and economic marginalization.

FOR several years, I have been investigating the circumstances surrounding 50 families in two West Baltimore neighborhoods. Most of these families are headed by women who receive public assistance. Joblessness, despondency, ignorance, substance abuse, male incarceration, and a staggering number of adolescent mothers are all part of the picture I see on a weekly basis. Yet other aspects are equally apparent:

More than half of the women in these families supplement AFDC through paid work, including attending to the elderly, petty vending, domestic service, and child care. More than a third of the teenagers of both sexes hold jobs, mostly in retail stores. Three-quarters of all household members attend church regularly.

And despite all that is said to the contrary, most fathers maintain contact with their children, even when they do not live in the household. Their shadowy presence bears testimony to a simple fact: their inability to make steady financial contributions to their families. When grown men are unable to hold better jobs than those available to teenagers, and when women must choose between minimum-wage employment and public assistance, is it any wonder that their families seem different from those in which there is occupational opportunity and high-quality education? The mystery is not that inner-city families flounder but that they continue to survive against all odds.

The November midterm elections provided the latest opportunity to bemoan the collapse of family values and to clamor for welfare programs to be dismantled. That would surely continue to erode the living conditions of close to 10 million children.

The real lesson is clear: Good schools and good jobs fortify families. Government investment in education, infrastructure, and business formation does vastly more to nurture family integrity than haughty moralizing, Newt Gingrich notwithstanding.

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