April 18 2012
Can The Poor Be Moral?
Desperate single mothers are mugging illegal aliens, shoplifting, and fencing stolen goods in order to survive, and it’s all the fault of those heartless Republicans and spineless Democrats who passed the 1996 welfare reform law.
Such, at least, is the message of a front-page article in the New York Times, the first salvo in a likely campaign to roll back the most successful federal law in recent memory.
The Times piece was written by Jason DeParle, whose wife is Obama health care adviser Nancy-Ann Min DeParle. The law under attack is Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which put a five-year limitation on welfare payments to a particular client and required work. This made welfare seem less like an entitlement. As a result, the welfare rolls dropped two-thirds from 1996 to 2009. But that wasn’t all: more never-married mothers were working and poverty among black children fell to its lowest level ever.
DeParle seems to regard it as a bad thing that welfare rolls have “only” risen 15 percent during the recent recession.
Some people, of course, would see the relative stability in welfare usage as a sign of success—proof that TANF has permanently discouraged at least one form of dependency. Not DeParle, however, who tries to show that the law has resulted in severe hardship for single mothers at the bottom of the economic ladder, forcing them to turn to crime and other forms of hustling to survive.
To his credit, DeParle himself provides much of the evidence that refutes his main story line. Nevertheless, his piece reveals a continuing divide over the analysis of poverty and the behavior that creates it, one that will grow more pointed in the coming years.
DeParle quotes Peter Edelman, the Georgetown professor who resigned a position in the Clinton White House because Bill Clinton signed TANF, complaining that people are “pushed” off welfare rolls by states and not allowed back. Call me heartless, but this sounds like the right thing to do after a certain point.
DeParle also tells several supposedly sob-inducing stories: the illegal immigrant whose four children’s welfare checks ran the limit and now scavenges for food, the woman who sells stolen clothes, and a woman who lures men into traps where accomplices rob them.
As a taxpayer, I have no desire to support these women. Mac Donald also points out that DeParl doesn’t make any attempt to show that they looked for legitimate work and failed to find it. There are also a number of programs that are still available to people, food stamps for example. Mac Donald says that many people cut off from TANF have simply migrated to other programs.
The real cause of poverty is not that there are not enough welfare programs. Mac Donald joins the growing chorus of people (most recently including Charles Murray and Kay Hymowitz) who say that the most prominent cause of poverty is out-of-wedlock births. She points out that conservatives have embraced all sorts of ideas and gimmicks aimed at decreasing welfare dependence.
Mac Donald argues that it is time to tackle the real root of poverty: problem of out-of-wedlock births head-on. She calls for "remoralizing the discourse around child-bearing:"
When DeParle profiles a 21-year-old mother of two as a victim of welfare reform because she is allegedly forced to live with an ill-tempered boyfriend now that her welfare payments have run out, conservatives can legitimately ask what has become a taboo question: “Why didn’t you think of that before you had the children?”
So assiduously nonjudgmental is the liberal discourse around poverty that DeParle portrays the crime committed by single mothers as the consequence of welfare reform—rather than of those mothers’ previous abysmal decision-making regarding procreation and their present lack of morals.
Oh, and by the way, the illegal immigrant who must scavenge in garbage bins? She lives in subsidized housing and collects $650 worth of food stamps every month.
It is so interesting, isn’t it, that well-educated liberals such as DeParle never expect the poor to be moral or to be capable of taking responsibility for their actions.