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Beyond entitlement: the social obligations of citizenship.

Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship.

Lawrence M. Mead. The Free Press, $19.95. Worrying about poverty in the midst of plenty has become about as fashionable as campaigning for unilateral disarmament. The new orthodoxy seems to be that the poor will always be with us (often the same welfare families to the nth generation), so let's turn our attention to more fashionable topics like missing children and date rape. The lingering sense of moral indignation among the press has been directed primarily at one small subgroup of the poor-the highly visible homeless. Even here, the villain is often identified as the liberals themselves, who foisted deinstitutionalization on the mentally ill who were patently unable to fend for themselves. Liberals continue to fight some noble rear-guard battles on behalf of the poor--most notably the successful effort by House Democrats to shield the remnants of the social safety net from the strictures of Gramm-Rudman. But most liberal thinking about the causes and cures of poverty has been limited to trying to invent new metaphors with which to decry the latest round of Reagan budget cuts. Oddly enough, for the first time in more than a half century, the most adventurous thinking about poverty is coming from a handful of conservatives, who have been profoundly influenced by the critical uproar surrounding the publication of Charles Murray's Losing Ground.

Lawrence Mead is clearly an exemplar of this new breed of neocompassionate conservatives: Beyond Entitlement was launched with an upscale luncheon at the New York Athletic Club, sponsored by the Manhattan Institute and moderated by Murray himself. But despite its pedigree and provocative title, Beyond Entitlement is far too narrow and academic a work to help policymakers devise workable poverty programs for the 1990s.

Mead's thesis is simple: welfare programs have failed largely because they have been unwilling and unable to require that recipients modify their conduct in order to receive benefits. The prime example for Mead is the abysmal failure of the work requirements that theoretically have accompanied Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) since the early 1970s. To Mead, work is the most tangible of the social obligations of citizenship. And he argues, "If society seriously wants more of the disadvantaged to work regularly, to achieve goals like integration, then it must require them to . . .. Work must be treated as a public obligation, akin to paying taxes or obeying the law.'

Mead sniffs at the standard liberal objections to requiring those on welfare to work--there are not enough minimum wage jobs, mothers should be at home with their children, and a work requirement is primarily punitive. He sees the bygone struggles for a guaranteed annual income as the ultimate liberal fallacy. America, in his view, came dangerously close to permanently shielding the welfare population from the responsibilities of work. Mead has a valid point: the liberal infatuation with a guaranteed annual income is worth reexamining. Part of the appeal of welfare reform was a justifiable effort to reduce the high cost of the permanent poverty bureaucracy and to translate those savings into additional cash for the poor and near-poor. But liberals were also guilty of a naive belief that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with an underclass permanently consigned to life on the dole. The rhetoric of this period was that the poor were entitled to this aid and that the able-bodied poor would choose to work, assuming jobs were available, even if a guaranteed annual income eliminated virtually all economic motivation for them to do so.

These days it is hard to argue with Mead's insistence that work is preferable to the dole. Yet Beyond Entitlement skirts almost all the messy questions that accompany any meaningful work requirement for welfare. Mead asserts that enough jobs exist in a nation with 7 percent unemployment, though he doesn't even provide Reaganesque anecdotal evidence of counting the columns of want-ads. Mead contends that the WIN program-- the mal-administered work component of AFDC--can be made to function effectively with only minor adjustments to current law. Yet the only evidence that Mead offers is a cursory examination of some successful WIN offices in New York state where the local staff "rejected "bleeding-heart, livingroom liberals' or "suzie social workers' who try to shield their clients from the labor market.' In fact, Mead's model of benevolent authority is--amazingly enough--"nuns teaching in parochial schools. Traditionally, nuns are tough on their students precisely because they believe in them and are concerned about their futures.' But just as the Catholic Church is having a hard time recruiting Sister Mary Ignatiuses, so, too, is it unrealistic to believe that most local welfare bureaucracies, shell-shocked and demoralized after years of malign neglect, could successfully administer even the most skillfully crafted work requirements.

Mead shares with most liberals the steadfast belief that poverty and welfare dependency are somehow curable with the right set of incentives and moral imperatives. In Mead's universe, work of whatever kind will make better people out of welfare recipients; liberals see the same gospel of salvation in jobtraining programs and other bureaucrat-intensive remedies. Although I have little recent firsthand knowledge, I do have the sense-- derived in part from my experiences in the Labor Department under Jimmy Carter--that it is already too late for large portions of the current welfare population. Behavior probably can't be changed after years of welfare dependency. Liberal benevolence, mixed with conservative parsimony, has created a lost generation in our housing projects and inner cities. True welfare reform would offer compassion to those who have lost hope and initiative while trying to discover innovative ways of saving most of the next generation. These are not pleasing alternatives--it is rarely politic to acknowledge abject failure--but they are a realistic reflection of the poverty of our current thinking about poverty.
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Author:Shapiro, Walter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1986
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