Sam Brown and self-help

The Ssam Brown says "Enough!" to the liberals' legacy of government social programs, it is not like hearing the same thing from an entrenched conservative. Mr. Brown is the social activist who became a Carter administration bureaucrat, and some might suspect that his recent remarks smack of prudent compliance with White House views. But we prefer to think that Mr. Brown's criticisms are consistent with a practical idealism of the sort that used to be summarized like this: It is good to give a hungry man a fish; it is better to prepare him to do his own fishing.

For what bothers Mr. Brown is what bothers many other Americans -- a sense that some government programs to aid the poor have had the effect of making them dependent on more fortunate people's fish rather than making it possible for them to catch their own.

Looking back on the past decade and a half, he not surprisingly finds that millions of people are better off today because of social programs started in the '60s. But there has been a cost in robbing some individuals of a feeling of control over their own lives. As Mr. Brown puts it:

* "Despite our best intentions, the government programs we have supported have unwittingly made the poor dependent and created a new bureaucratic and expert elite that too often denies poor people the opportunities to help themselves."

* "We have allowed those who wish to scorn the poor the opportunity to foster the myth that poor people will not pull their own weight."

* "We have, in short, created a system of helping that encourages the poor to be passive rather than active, dependent rather than self-reliant, recipients rather than producers, clients instead of people proud of their own work."

It happens that Mr. Brown, director of the umbrella volunteer agency ACTION, was speaking on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of one of his charges, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to america). And VISTA has been actively seeking not to make the mistake of fostering dependency or passivity but to help people and communities help themselves. In recent years it has brought increasing numbers of the poor and of minorities themselves into the VISTA effort on behalf of their communities.

So Mr. Brown may have been talking to those already convinced of the virtues of selfhelp and the government role in bolstering it.

But what of the welfare programs that come to mind when the growth in dependency on government is noted? Consider those combinations of food stamps, medicaid, and other assistance that may well be necessary in given instances but that can prolong dependency by bringing in more income than an available job would.

Most recipients, apart from the cheaters, have some temporary or long-term reason for being unable to support themselves. The work ethic is still strong in America, though sights have been raised in terms of pay and job satisfaction. New York Governor Carey displayed the proper perspective in bygone congressional testimony: "When decent jobs at decent wages are available, most welfare recipients, out of pride and self-respect, will take them eagerly."

But a problem arises when a physically able recipient cannot find a decent job and is penalized for taking lesser work, with every dollar in wages reducing welfare benefits. Economist Martin Anderson of Stanford's Hoover Institution, a Ronald Reagan adviser, has calculated that the effective marginal tax rates on such relative pittances of earned income can exceed those for people making $100 ,000 a year. From his researches, brought together in a book called "Welfare," he makes a rather broad but plausible generalization:

"What many people have suspected for some time is true. Poor people, like those with higher incomes, make rational economic decisions. If their income is little affected by working more, they will not work very much more. If their income is little affected by working less, then they will work less. This is not to say that the poor value idleness, but they do value leisure, just as much as the nonpoor."

Thus, from different parts of the political spectrum, voices tend toward similar goals: providing for people who cannot help themselves but not turning people who canm help themselves into people who do not. No one would seriously suggest going back to the bad old days of sink or swim. But those who can swim or can learn to do so should not be induced by a thoughtless government to stay inertly or fearfully on shore.

And the concept of individual self-help ought to expand, as it once ordinarily did, to help for other individuals in the family or down the street. The result could be measured in dollars and cents, releasing more government aid for the genuinely helpless and forlorn by requiring less of it for those able to help themselves or call on those who should be close to them. For example, economist Anderson calculates that an average of three or four persons could be removed from the welfare rolls for every absent parent who could be enlisted to contribute to the support of his or her spouse and children.

But the economic advantages of restoring the american tradition of self-reliance, at whatever income level, would be accompanied by something no less important: a firming of the national fiber by strengthening the citizen and community strands within it. It would be well worth the extra effort of fashioning a more individual-oriented administration of welfare. This woulc identify the truly needy; bring together children or other dependents and the persons who can and should be responsible for them; target individual aid to the able poor -- education, job training, community enterprise -- in ways to help them lift themselves out of poverty.

Transforming "recipients" into "producers" -- this is where Sam Brown comes in again. He warrants an audience wider than the one he spoke to when he warned of a "system of helping" that squelches self-help.

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