The (Un)Worthy Poor

America's on-off sympathy for the needy seems to be entering the off cycle

A paradigm shift is occurring in how America addresses the needs of the poorest members of society. Spurred by federal reforms, California and a host of other states plan dramatic changes aimed at shrinking the welfare rolls. This year Congress will likely explore possible reforms in funding the Social Security system. As a result, the roles of public and private institutions are entering a period of profound transformation.

The process is fraught with risk - not only for the politicians and the stereotyped welfare moms and children - but for society as a whole. Still, the impulse for reform is strong, driven by social and political ideology and government financial duress.

To understand the nature of this change and the path the nation is walking, it's useful to examine the roots of government support for the poor. Americans have traditionally entertained an ambivalent attitude toward assistance to those unable to support themselves.

The first English settlers in the 17th century brought with them the so-called Elizabethan Poor Law. It required families to assist their impoverished relatives. If no family were available or able, local communities - parishes first, then villages, towns, and counties - were responsible for the poor.

The public at large made a distinction between the "worthy" poor - widows, orphans, the handicapped, the aged - and the "unworthy" poor, whose condition was ascribed to laziness or some other defect of character. The latter were held in contempt.

This streak of bigotry against the so-called "unworthy" poor lasted until the Great Depression of the 1930s. The millions of unemployed, the uprooted and destitute, drove home the lesson that the poor were usually victims of circumstances beyond their control.

The Depression also made the federal government the primary provider of jobs and other assistance, especially the Social Security Act signed into law in 1935. The poor were regarded more sympathetically by their fellow citizens - most of whom were in distressed conditions themselves.

The federal assistance programs proliferated over the following decades. They became an entrenched government system. As the years after World War II proceeded, a majority of Americans became affluent to one degree or another while a minority remained on welfare. In 1996, polls showed that 93 percent of the public wanted the system changed.

Last August, President Clinton signed a new welfare-reform bill, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. It transfers most assistance programs back to the states - with oversight from Washington. In some categories the new law reduces or even eliminates welfare payments; it limits the time a recipient can receive benefits; it mandates work, or the search for work, as a condition of eligibility for assistance.

Liberals - in and beyond Congress - are outraged by the new law. To them it smacks of punishment for being poor. They believe that poverty is a social condition created by a wide variety of factors, from the majority's resentment of minorities to the lack of jobs in the country's inner cities.

Conservatives applaud the new welfare-reform law as a partial retreat from the morass of government-assistance programs that have proliferated since the 1930s. The bottom-line conservative concern is the rising percentage of the federal budget targeted for welfare programs. The latest figure available from the House Ways and Means Committee is 17 percent for 1994, compared with 6.4 percent in 1968.

Conservatives are also concerned about the increasing rate of illegitimate births in the United States - 33 percent and going up every year. Most illegitimate children are born into poor families. Many conservatives also believe - or at least suspect - that poverty is a result of laziness, that the poor prefer to live on welfare rather than go to work.

The Clinton administration acknowledges that the welfare-reform law will increase the number of people living below the poverty line. But it will, said the president in a speech last summer, inspire the poor to find work and resume control of their own lives.

Mr. Clinton vowed to "improve" several aspects of the new law that he believes are too harsh - a cutback of food stamps and elimination of all benefits to legal immigrants who are not yet citizens.

The debate over reforming welfare reform will be a fundamentally ideological set-to in the first year of the 105th Congress. The conservative Republican definition of the poor will clash with the liberal Democratic definition. Two views of the uses of public money will collide. There will be arguments about public morals in the matter of illegitimate children.

However it comes out, the 1997 political disputation about welfare reform will sound familiar to historians. It will be fundamentally about human nature and money - a debate in various guises that has echoed on and off through the American centuries, an argument that began on the Eastern seaboard nearly 300 years ago with the importation of the Elizabethan Poor Law.

* Rod MacLeish is a staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor.

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