October 20, 1996
"It's that Old-Time Welfare Reform: If Thomas Malthus and John Stuart
Mill Couldn't Fix it Over a Century Ago, Can Newt Gingrich"
San Jose Mercury News
By Timothy Taylor
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THE ISSUE of welfare dependency has been around for centuries, not just a
few years or decades. For example, the current disputes over welfare reform neatly
repeat arguments of the early 19th century, when England struggled with how to
reform its ''poor laws.''
In 1803, one million people - 9 percent of the population of England and Wales
- were receiving assistance under the poor laws. This assistance was funded by
the national government, but administered through local parishes. By 1830, these
expenditures were estimated at 2 percent of the national economy; in the current
U.S. economy of $7 trillion, a proportional amount of spending would be $140 billion
A Royal Commission was appointed to consider the poor laws, and in its 1834
report, it judged the poor laws of that time guilty of the same crimes that are
blamed on welfare today: discouraging work, creating dependency, destroying families.
The commission expressed concern that ''in many places the income derived from
the parish . . . actually exceeds that of the independent laborer.'' In such a
system, ''idleness, improvidence, or extravagance occasion no loss, and consequently
diligence and economy can afford no gain.''
The result was often what we now might call a welfare mentality: ''The severest
sufferers are those that have become callous to their own degradation, who value
parish support as their privilege, and demand it as their right, and complain
only that it is limited in amount, or that some sort of labor or confinement is
exacted in return.''
As the poor laws removed economic incentives, family life disintegrated. The
commission wrote: ''Now pauperism seems to be an engine for the purpose of disconnecting
each member of a family from all the others; of reducing all to the state of domesticated
animals, fed, lodged, and provided for by the parish, without mutual dependence
or mutual interest.''
Some noted economists of that time, like Thomas Malthus, called for the total
abolition of the poor laws. But the commission's 1834 proposal was to make welfare
less attractive, notably by imposing unpleasant conditions like requiring that
recipients enter a workhouse.
As the economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill described this report a few
years later in 1848, its guiding belief was that ''the guarantee of support could
be freed from its injurious effects on the minds and habits of the people, if
the relief, though ample in respect to necessities, was accompanied with conditions
which they disliked, consisting of some restraints on their freedom, and the privation
of some indulgences.''
Today, we are still trying to strike a balance to assure that support for the
poor is sufficient without becoming a way of life. Instead of arguing over workhouses,
we now argue over workfare as a condition of receiving welfare, or over whether
teen-age mothers should be required to complete a high school degree or live with
their parents as a condition of welfare, or how parents on welfare should be discouraged
from having additional children.
We still have a tendency, now as in 1834, to rely on anecdotes rather than
evidence. For example, modern economic researchers have pointed out that the poor
laws of the early 19th century typically paid about only 10-15 percent of the
wage that an unskilled worker could earn at that time, so the support was usually
only an income supplement, and the Royal Commission was overstating when it argued
that the poor laws commonly paid more than work.
Today, one rarely hears it mentioned that the average support paid under Aid
to Families with Dependent Children has been steadily declining for 25 years,
a trend which makes me skeptical that continuing the pattern of cuts over the
next few years will cause much alteration in undesirable social patterns.
Welfare does cause problems of dependency. But by itself, cutting welfare does
little to assure that children grow up in safe neighborhoods, with enough to eat
and a decent education. By itself, cutting welfare does little to help former
recipients reclaim their lives.
In 1996 as in 1834, it's far easier to tell horror stories about welfare dependency
than to define and defend a positive agenda that would move toward greater equality
of opportunity and economic independence.
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