Living without a safety net

A leading social scientist decries America's neglect of the poor

President George W. Bush should consult "The Price of Citizenship" before making too much of his faith-based proposal to help the poor. He would discover that this warmed-over version of his dad's "thousand points of light" has been tried before and found to be wanting when it comes to lifting people out of poverty, much less breaking the crippling cycle of dependence.

"Contrary to conservative myth," Michael Katz contends, "private charity never proved an adequate response to dependence in America's past. Nor did compassion permeate responses to poverty."

Katz's pointed comments should not be regarded lightly. The Sheldon and Lucy Hackney Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania is an eminent scholar in the field of poverty research, and his five previous books reflect a keen understanding of this chronic problem.

His newest volume, which is the culmination of 20 years of research, seeks to redefine the welfare state from its modest Colonial beginnings to President Clinton's grandiose promise to "end welfare as we know it."

Katz's premise is that the social contract, which has informed this nation's more enlightened policies toward the poor, is being shredded by political expediency. He writes with a passion for the downtrodden and dispossessed, the intensity of which is buttressed by an array of facts and figures that dispel anecdotal blather.

He urges readers to define their terms, beginning with the pejorative phrase "undeserving poor." This, he insists, has become such a part of our political language that it distorts any rational discussion of a crucial public policy question.

Rather than dwell on Reaganesque caricatures like the mythical welfare queen who arrives in a Cadillac to collect her relief check, he relates several unsettling facts:

* "In no other modern industrial nation is healthcare an earned privilege rather than a human right."

* The US permits more of its children to remain in poverty than any other comparable nation.

* The US offers single mothers less help than most other industrial nations.

* The much-maligned Aid to Families With Dependent Children program amounted to less than 1 percent of the US gross domestic product in 1995, even though it was consistently cited as a classic example of government profligacy.

Katz hastens to add that, "Social Security alone costs five times as much as AFDC, food stamps, and SSI combined." Little wonder the real value of AFDC benefits declined by 47 percent in constant dollars from 1970 to 1995, while indexed Social Security benefits kept pace with inflation.

These and other glaring disparities permeate what Katz characterizes as our "semi-welfare state," wherein politicians nurture "respectable" programs such as Social Security and Medicare, while lambasting the most vulnerable people, imploring them to become productive members of society.

Noting that no one likes welfare, Katz marvels at how a system so "incoherent and irrational" was able "to resist fundamental change" for so long. Until 1996, that is, when the GOP-controlled Congress basically compelled Clinton to countenance a sweeping measure that denied cash benefits to the poorest individuals and shifted the public assistance burden to the states.

When, to many people's surprise, the welfare rolls began to shrink and city streets were not teeming with beggars, devolution devotees began to hail the success of their handiwork.

The problem is it's very costly to prepare poor folks to get and, more important, keep private-sector jobs.

Those who place faith in market-based solutions to complex social problems, Katz reminds, would do well to remember that unbridled market forces tend to hurt "vulnerable parties without power to effect their outcomes."

Katz envisions an equitable society in which every American, regardless of income, has access to decent healthcare, the working poor receive basic public benefits, and the destitute are cared for by the state. That seems a small price to pay for the citizens of the world's most prosperous and powerful country.

Alan Miller is an editorial writer with The San Diego Union-Tribune.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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