Davy Crockett Welfare

"We are not going to buy our way out of town with the taxpayers' money," said House majority leader Dick Armey. He was referring to the Democratic price for ending the recent congressional session: more spending on human services and other programs.

Congressman Armey, meet Congressman Davy Crockett.

Saving the taxpayers' money was not part of the hype when Walt Disney's "king of the wild frontier" became TV's first megahero in the 1950s. But now tax-cut enthusiasts are circulating a political vignette about Crockett's road-to-Damascus conversion away from federal aid to the needy.

A similar if less radical conversion shapes the new US welfare system. And Americans will need all the generous, self-reliant, creative qualities of the frontier, not to mention the Good Samaritan, if the needy are not to be left by the wayside.

Crockett saw the light on a road in Tennessee, according to a story going back to 1833. He was making a pre-election swing through his district, and he was feeling rather good about voting for $20,000 to succor homeless victims of a large fire he had helped to control. Then he met a farmer who said Crockett had lost his vote because the farmer found no constitutional authority for dispensing taxpayers' money for charity. Fine if the legislators wanted to contribute their own money to strangers in need - what an imagination! - but not his.

Candidate Crockett was instantly convinced. He used the farmer's reasoning in a speech against federal support for a naval officer's widow.

It was a century before Rooseveltian welfare gave new meaning to the Constitution's empowering of Congress to collect taxes and provide for the "general Welfare." As one of Roosevelt's "brain trusters" wrote, "Since the New Deal people have looked to the government for relief in time of hardship - something that would have been inconceivable to the framers."

Now Bill Clinton, also on the pre-election road, is converted to federal welfare limitations he had long opposed - and will later remedy, he says.

Not waiting with bated breath, many Americans and their organizations are already showing frontier-family qualities - though it is a century since the US Census of 1890 declared the frontier gone and history said it was no longer a living force in the life of the nation.

Crockett offered a week's pay to help the widow whose federal support he defeated. Now billionaire financier George Soros has offered the same - well, $50 million - to assist legal immigrants he says are unjustly denied "vital public services" under the new law.

Some employers offer to help with jobs for welfare recipients required to work when even nonrecipients can't find jobs. In St. Louis the Grace Hill nonprofit agency pioneers a work-for-barter program in which people earn "time dollars" to exchange for the services of others or items such as donated food. The welfare law itself contains a measure for self-reform: A state must file a corrective-action plan within 90 days if its child-poverty rate rises as a result of welfare changes.

Such initiatives are in keeping with one of the frontier's main roles identified by its leading historian, Frederick Jackson Turner: serving as a testing laboratory for economic, social, and political ideas and organizations.

The most thoughtful, innovative, and efficient testing will be necessary on the new frontier of welfare.

Congress has not done a Crockett and rejected the very idea of taxpayers helping the needy. But federal dollars now go to the states for spending. Unexpected expenses and organizational chaos are predicted, as 50 different approaches take shape.

But the prospect could not be more challenging or fearsome than the unknown geographical frontier was to the Americans who conquered it. Their achievement drives their descendants on in the new rush to assure a piece of America for all.

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