The Ethical Spectacle March 1995 (

Compassion, Understanding and Welfare

The word "welfare" has become loaded with negative connotations; in a psychological test, fire "welfare" at a friend, and chances are that, Republican or Democrat, he or she will respond with "fraud" or "cheat" as the association.

Mr. Gingrich and his troops have announced that reforming the welfare system has become the top priority today. Among the suggestions made, in the Contract With America and elsewhere, are: force recipients to get off welfare after two years, no matter what; end the concept of welfare as an entitlement, but allocate funds for it instead, so that when the budget runs out, recipients are on their own; put welfare recipients to work; deny benefits to unmarried mothers who are minors, or under 25; create "group homes" (orphanages) for children whose parents can't hold it together without benefits.

Everyone agrees the patient is sick, but there is no consensus as to the diagnosis. Who exactly is on welfare? Is welfare a way of life, an entitlement, a manipulation of the system, a stipend worth having children for or commiting fraud to obtain? Is welfare a crutch that discourages recipients from walking by themselves? Or is it a safety net that allows citizens to get back on their feet and contribute to the common good again?

In order to know the answers, you would have to know the people who are on welfare. But I seriously doubt most politicians have ever met a welfare recipient for more than a fleeting moment, let alone gotten to know the lives of such people in depth. A modest proposal: Mr. Gingrich, before voting on your welfare reform proposal takes place, spend a week in the Cabrini Green public houses in Chicago (this would also be a useful thing to do before Congress votes on any Republican gun-related initiative, such as repealing the ban on some semiautomatic weapons ).

No-one knows who we are dealing with here, or what their influences and possibilities are; isn't it incredibly arrogant to prescribe a solution without knowledge? This is the crux of the matter. I watched Mr. Gingrich, in his opening speech to the House, talk about compassion for children and for welfare recipients. (He predicted the Monday morning on which we will be able to say that no children were shot over the weekend-- a statement terribly hard to reconcile with his vote against the Brady bill, the failure of the Contract With America to say anything about gun control, and the declared intent of some members of his party to legalize the banned semiautomatics.) It would be incredibly presumptuous to offer compassion to people you haven't tried to understand, or to attempt to solve their problems without studying them first. On the other hand, if compassion had nothing to do with it-- if we were merely trying to dump them, stop paying for them, get them out of our lives--then the deflection away from understanding would be easy to explain.

Republicans and Democrats both agree that a two year limit on welfare benefits will leave five million American children without benefits. (Incidentally, here's a quick quiz: welfare isn't called that. What is the real name of the program? Answer: Aid to Families with Dependent Children, AFDC for short.) But, liberals and conservatives, each with firm fantasies about welfare recipients, disagree on the consequences. Liberals think five million children will sink. Republicans, with their theories of personal responsibility, think the parents of five million children will find jobs to keep their children supported when there are no alternatives-- and, if not, there are always those group homes.

For whatever its worth, here are some statistics on AFDC from the House Ways and Means Committee (source: the Austin American Statesman for January 8th). There are five million families on AFDC; when Ronald Reagan took office, there were 3.5 million. Almost 14% of all American children receive AFDC (11.5% in 1980). Eighty-nine percent of fathers are absent; 42.5% of families have one child; 44% of mothers are 30 or over. Families go on AFDC because parents separate (45%); an unmarried woman has a child (30%); a single mother's earning's fall (12%); other family members' earnings fall (3%). Families get off AFDC because a single mother gets married (35%); single mother's earnings go up (21%); children leave home (11%). The maximum monthly AFDC grant varies from state to state but the median is $366, while the federally-determined poverty threshold is $960 in the continental U.S.

These statistics are enlightening, but at best are only a distant reflection of reality, like any statistics. The proof of the compassion declared by Mr. Gingrich would be investigation. Mr. Gingrich, go live in Cabrini Green for a while; don't judge or prescribe for people about whom you know nothing. Not if you want to help them.