Welfare: Moynihan's Counsel of Despair

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 61 (March 1996): 8-10.

Talk to those who know about such things and they'll tell you that Daniel Patrick Moynihan has read more and thought more about welfare policy than just about anyone alive. Certainly more than any other politician. In books such as Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding and The Politics of a Guaranteed Income, Moynihan chronicled the follies by which the federal government hemorrhaged literally trillions of dollars to "solve" the problem of poverty, only to have the country end up with millions of people in an ever more radically isolated underclass.

Moynihan's was not a strident polemic against poverty warriors, for he himself was an architect of some of the bungled efforts launched in the Johnson and Nixon Administrations. Rather, his was an ironic commentary on the improbability of government being able to do much of anything to change the way people live. Long before "family politics" came into fashion, Moynihan dared to point out the connection between poverty and the collapse of the black family, thereby making himself the target of armies of outraged academics and activists who attacked him for "blaming the victim."

But Pat Moynihan more than survived the attack. As Senator from New York he was for years respected by Democrats and Republicans alike as the congressional expert on welfare. When in 1992 Bill Clinton ran on the promise to "end welfare as we know it," and when in 1994 the Republican majority declared its determination to get serious about welfare reform, many thought Moynihan's time had come around at last.

What happened seems to have surprised almost everybody. Far from being a key player in the overhauling of the welfare system, Moynihan unleashed a series of complaints, ranging from the petulant to the apocalyptic. Sixty years of social policy, he says, is being mindlessly dismantled by "the monstrous political deception embodied in the term 'welfare reform.' " Millions of children will join the ranks of the homeless trying to get a little warmth by sleeping on the grates in our city streets. "The defenders of the old activism toward the poor," complains Moynihan, "surrendered willingly, with the shrugs and indifference of those who no longer believed in what they stood for." The Democratic minority that fusses over saving bits and pieces of the old welfare system is, he says, "literally arranging flowers on the coffin of the provision for children in the Social Security Act."

Moynihan does not defend the old system because it works. On the contrary, he is a master of the tale of good intentions done in by the law of unintended consequences. In an extended jeremiad in the Congressional Record, he says he does not disagree with James Q. Wilson's claim that any welfare program significantly funded from Washington will be run "uniformly, systematically, politically, and ignorantly." Further, he does not deny that conservatives are more clear-headed about these problems than liberals. "The great strength of political conservatives at this time (and for a generation) is that they are open to the thought that matters are complex. Liberals have got into a reflexive pattern of denying this. I had hoped twelve years in the wilderness [the Reagan-Bush years] might have changed this; it may be it has only reinforced it." Moynihan, then, does not defend the welfare status quo because liberals are right and conservatives are wrong, and certainly not because it works. He defends it because he believes there is no alternative to it. When the time for welfare reform came around at last, Moynihan's ironic criticism had turned into despair.

Moynihan's onslaught against "the monstrous political deception" of welfare reform has been joined by the big charities, the oldline churches, and the Catholic bishops, all of whom incessantly point out that nobody but the federal government has the resources to maintain existing welfare programs. But that rather entirely misses the point. The point is that most of the existing programs should not be maintained, that they are actually hurting the poor by putting and keeping them in a posture of dependency and perpetual political supplication. The point is that, in the absence of knowing what might actually change the behavior that is the chief cause of poverty, free rein should be given to state, local, and nongovernmental experiments.

The big charities, the churches, and other advocates of the welfare status quo are not as candid as Senator Moynihan about the human catastrophe reinforced by current policies. But one suspects that many of them agree, at least intuitively, with his counsel of despair. Millions of people, Moynihan notes, have for generations become accustomed to living outside the circle of social responsibility and economic productivity. Under the AFDC program alone, started sixty years ago to provide temporary help to a relative handful of widows and jobless women with children, well over half the families receiving benefits now begin as AFDC families. In almost all cases, these are women with children born out of wedlock, and Moynihan notes that "there are millions of families in just this circumstance."

A major political problem, and it is also a compassion problem, is that most of the country is untouched by this catastrophe. Those who are on AFDC for a short time are more or less evenly distributed across the land, while those who are more or less permanently on the dole are concentrated in the cities. In 1993, Moynihan notes, 59 percent of the children in Atlanta, 66 percent in Cleveland, 55 percent in Miami, 57 percent in Philadelphia, and 66 percent in Newark were receiving AFDC. Most of these children and their mothers have never known and possibly will never know any other way of life than living on welfare. In many cases, the mothers and grandmothers of these mothers never knew anything but welfare. "If welfare were a smallish problem-if this were 1955 or even 1965-an argument could be made for turning the matter back to state government," says Moynihan. "But it is now so large a problem that governments of the states in which it is most concentrated simply will not be able to handle it."

Welfare reform proposals in Congress, especially provisions to put time limits on the reception of benefits, "will produce a surge in the number of homeless children such that the current problem of 'the homeless' will seem inconsequential," declares Moynihan. Then comes the most stark and chilling statement of his counsel of despair: "I believe our pres-ent social welfare system is all but overwhelmed. . . . Hundreds of thousands of these children live in households that are held together primarily by the fact of welfare assistance. Take that away and the children are blown to the winds. [An] Administration analysis concludes that the welfare conference agreement [between House and Senate] will force 1.5 million children into poverty. To say what I have said before here in the Senate: young males can be horrid to themselves, horrid to one another, horrid to the rest of us."

Yes, it is a human catastrophe. And yes, there is no alternative to it. Moynihan's declaration is the domestic equivalent of George Kennan's famous "X" article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," in the July 1947 Foreign Affairs. Communism is doing horrible things to people, but there is nothing to be done except to brace ourselves to maintain a policy of "containment," at enormous expense and for as long as anyone can see into the future. Containment may have been good foreign policy, but it is a very different matter to urge, as Senator Moynihan does urge, containment against an enemy within. Young males of the welfare-dependent mainly black urban underclass "can be horrid to themselves, horrid to one another, horrid to the rest of us." Dismantle the defense system of the welfare status quo and you loose them upon society.

Most revealingly and depressingly, Moynihan concludes his declaration by drawing an analogy with the "deinstitutionalization" of mental patients in the 1960s and 1970s. That fatal step resulted in the hundreds of thousands of "homeless" wandering our streets in alcoholic and drug-induced stupor. But most of them are not dangerous. The thugs who do "horrid things" carry knives and guns. "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," according to Kennan, were ideological and nationalistic. The sources of welfare conduct, according to Moynihan, are in congenital criminality and general social incompetence. In both cases, there is nothing to be done for it except containment.

"These children live in households that are held together primarily by the fact of welfare assistance. Take that away and the children are blown to the winds." Is that true? How does he know that? Has the underclass descended to such a subhuman level that there are no bonds of love and obligation-between mothers and children, among networks of relatives, within churches and charitable organizations? In the absence of a welfare check, would they really turn millions of children out on the streets? We must not, we do not, believe that.

Senator Moynihan says that limiting welfare would do nothing to change the behavior of men who are so largely responsible for the depredations of the underclass. He does not know that either. The fact is that men who have fathered five or more children and are father to none live off the welfare checks of "their" women. Absent that check, they may turn to crime, although many are already supplementing their income by criminal activity. Absent that check, on the other hand, many might get a job. It is true that human beings do not act simply by a rational calculus of incentives and disincentives. It is also true that the incentives and disincentives of the welfare system of the last thirty years have positively encouraged the behavior that produced the tragedy of the underclass. Poor people are not pure rational calculators, but neither are they stupid. A fifteen-year-old girl might think twice about getting pregnant and having a baby if there were no reward of a biweekly check and an apartment of her own. (There is reason to believe that such a change would also reduce the incidence of abortion, but nobody knows; and, until we do know one way or the other, that consideration must be discounted in the debate over welfare reform.)

We do not doubt that Senator Moynihan and those of like mind care deeply about the human tragedy of the underclass. They are not ignorant of the fact that the AFDC children who will never have a father-and maybe do not know what a father is in the sense that most of humanity understands the term-are many times more likely to drop out of school, to be unemployable, to be drug addicted, to be criminals, to be imprisoned, and to die young and violently. Millions of children sleeping on street grates is a scarifying and, we believe, improbable specter. Everyday life in Bedford-Stuyvesant, South Chicago, and a hundred other places is the present reality that is perpetuated, in large part, by the welfare status quo that is defended by Senator Moynihan, by the social work bureaucracies, and by too many of our churches.

The purpose of welfare policy should be to move people out of dependency into the mainstream of social responsibility and opportunity. Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree with that. It is just that he no longer thinks it can be done. As with criminals and the insane, the poor must be contained. We have tried deinstitutionalization, and it doesn't work. It does no good for them, and it lets loose a population that can do horrid things to the rest of us.

In 1968, Edward Banfield published The Unheavenly City, one of the most important public policy books of the past half century. Banfield estimated that about 6 percent of any population is socially incompetent. That is, for whatever reason-physical or mental handicap, criminal disposition, severe deprivation-6 percent of the population is simply not able to get on with their lives in any productive way. To a greater or lesser degree, somebody will have to take care of them. In the utopian sixties when everything was declared to be possible-not least winning "the war against poverty"-Banfield was widely reviled as a reactionary prepared to consign millions of people not simply to second-class citizenship but to virtual non-citizenship. Compared with Pat Moynihan, Banfield was an optimist.

In the Banfield view, the socially incompetent were more or less evenly spread across the society. Moynihan's social incompetents are concentrated in the inner cities, and are mainly black. One may accept Banfield's analysis while contending that the incompetent should be cared for. Moynihan says they must be contained. An older tradition says they should be cared for out of altruism and fellow-feeling, as well as self-interest. Moynihan says they should be contained or else they will do horrid things to their children who will, in turn, do horrid things to "the rest of us." Banfield's estimate of 6 percent may be too high, but the recognition that some people are and always will be socially incompetent is necessary realism. Moynihan's resignation to the permanence of the welfare underclass is unwarranted despair.

As we said, over the years few people have done so much to help us understand the perplexities of welfare as Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In these latter days, and however inadvertently, he has in his opposition to reform helped us to understand why there is no practical or moral alternative to exploring a radically different approach to welfare. It is surely not what he intended, but we are again in his debt.