Poverty and Personal Choice

May 14, 2002 • Commentary

Poverty is hard. Welfare is a poor palliative. Welfare‐​to‐​work is no panacea. These are the most obvious lessons of “Hands to Work,” a sobering look at three families caught in the welfare system.

“The poor you will always have with you,” warned Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:11), and they remain with us after the 1996 welfare reform. Indeed, helping those in need may be harder now than before, with the least able recipients remaining on welfare and the economy running more slowly. Congress must decide whether to reauthorize its earlier handiwork, a prospect about which Columbia University’s LynNell Hancock is decidedly unenthusiastic.

The author follows three people on welfare. They differ greatly, but all find navigating the system to be a challenge. The book is written in the context of the 1996 legislation, requiring work for benefits and limiting welfare receipt. The women’s stories, the author notes, “can be viewed in many ways to justify one political view of welfare or another.” But there’s little doubt what she thinks.

In fact, the law can be arbitrary, penalties can be counterproductive, hearings can be unfair, and bureaucrats can be dismissive. Yet the starting point of any analysis of poverty should be poverty itself. The people covered in the book are not the proverbial widows and orphans, upon whom poverty descends circumstantially. Instead, all made bad decisions.

Brenda has a child with a live‐​in boyfriend who is a violent former criminal. Alina’s family leaves Moldova for America, in hopes of a better life but with no guaranteed means of support. Christine squanders an inheritance, uses drugs, drives away her stable, employed boyfriend and ends up in jail after stealing and selling drugs. Neither justice nor efficiency suggests that an open‐​ended public entitlement is the right response in any of these cases. To the contrary, welfare exacerbates such problems. People may not engage in self‐​destructive behavior in order to win government benefits. But the availability of a public dole enables them more easily to engage in such behavior.

The lives of the three women are complex, frustrating, difficult, and sad, though mixed with moments of happiness and even triumph. No bureaucratic, rule‐​bound system could adequately account for the differences among the three, let alone among the millions on welfare. Indeed, the vagaries of the system detailed in the book are real. And burdensome. But these costs offer a benefit of sorts, pressuring recipients to work, study and look for a way out. Even seemingly irrational restrictions demonstrate that welfare is a mark of a compassionate society seeking to aid those in need, not an entitlement for those who prefer impoverished dependency to uncertain independence.

In her overall portrait, the author shows why the system so needs reform. One strategy she appears to favor is unlimited goals and nonexistent rules: “The public needs to embrace a new goal for welfare reform — erasing poverty, not just eliminating the dole. In Britain, a voting majority supports the Labor Party’s New Deal, which increases welfare spending in order to end child poverty. Single parents are not expected to work.”

This is a utopian vision. Spend a little more money and poverty will disappear. But, poverty will exist so long as people make bad personal decisions. As long as government creates barriers to economic advancement. And as long as people lack sufficient skills to thrive in a market economy.

Fighting the poverty that inevitably results is certainly a worthy endeavor. Unfortunately, however, experience demonstrates that while abundant government spending might alleviate some material poverty, it will simultaneously encourage other material poverty, by rewarding lack of marriage, illegitimacy and unemployment. And any limited gains will come at a high price: encouraging dysfunctional behavior and creating endless dependence.

An alternative strategy is to start with private aid. One reason is that compulsory compassion is an oxymoron: One does not demonstrate generosity by taxing other people. Another reason is more pragmatic. Private groups can effectively speak to the whole person, addressing spiritual needs and behavioral problems, for instance, and insisting on personal reform. Government, through initiatives such as workfare, can offer only a pale imitation of such private efforts.

Public programs should be only a last resort, a final safety net. Those in need should not look at welfare as an alternative to work; those able to give to others should not look at it as a substitute for private charity.

LynNell Hancock’s story should be read by anyone tempted to try to wall off his less fortunate neighbors. Our common humanity makes that impossible. But welfare will always be a second‐​best alternative. Attempting to reform it will never be easy. Failing to reform it will sacrifice another generation to poverty and dependency.

About the Author