To the Editor:

Leslie Lenkowsky’s article, “Welfare Reform and the Liberals” [March], is a brilliant and courageous discussion of a complex and sensitive issue. Federal bureaucrats and legislators who are serious about welfare reform should heed its message that the liberal infatuation with a national minimum income is “at best . . . an inadequate objective, at worst . . . an inappropriate one.”

Yet I wish Mr. Lenkowsky had paid a bit more attention to the liberal tendency to ignore certain urgent problems in the present welfare system and to place certain reform proposals wholly outside the domain of legitimate discussion. In the first category one must put the heavy fiscal burden that has been shouldered by state and local taxpayers in states such as New York and California which have tried to provide a measure of decency for their least fortunate citizens and the illiberal reaction that has resulted from the failure of the national government to assume more of this burden. Many of the Californians voting for Proposition 13 thought they were voting against high welfare costs.

Into the second category goes the proposition that able-bodied welfare recipients for whom no regular job is available might reasonably be expected to perform useful services for their community in return for cash benefits, provided that adequate arrangements can be made to care for their children. This is already the practice in some localities for recipients of general assistance—a program that entails no federal financial participation—and the state of Utah has obtained permission from HEW to operate its programs of Aid to Families with Dependent Children in this way, although other states have had similar requests turned down in Washington.

Why should it be unreasonable to deny this option to states wanting to try it? To be sure, a “regular” job is far preferable, but is enforced idleness better than constructive activity? Yet the conventional liberal wisdom dubs this “slavefare” and refuses even to discuss it.

As the 96th Congress reopens the subject of welfare reform, the one thing that is clear is that no uniform national program yet devised has social benefits that outweigh its costs. Why, therefore, feign confidence in such schemes and require them of everyone, rather than admit uncertainty and permit a wide range of variations to be tried?

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chevy Chase, Maryland

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To the Editor:

I marvel that a fundamental fact about welfare is so often understated: nationwide, with rare exceptions, the only people on welfare are the financially eligible (i.e., the very poor—the disabled, the elderly, and families with young children, invariably headed by women). The able-bodied single male (or female) or able-bodied father on welfare is almost pure propaganda or myth. Therefore, most people on welfare are not able (or free) to work.

The issue, then, is not jobs vs. welfare, but jobs for the unemployed who cannot get welfare. The entwined issue (also widely understated) is that many, if not most, people who are unemployed do not have jobs because there are no jobs for them. This was spectacularly true during the earlier 1970’s and is still true today . . . though in somewhat less painful degree. . . .

Logically, some young families may deliberately split up to enable the mother and children to receive welfare when the fathers cannot get jobs. Logically, too, the strains of poverty (on health and morale) in low-income homes can lead to broken homes. Freer sexual practices and the opportunity for subsistence survival on welfare may also lead to more unwed mothers being on welfare.

Whatever the precipitating factors, it seems to me that more insight is needed even in those cases in which Leslie Lenkowsky claims welfare has “actually encouraged the poor to fit themselves to the requirements.”

The fruits of welfare may be “increasingly generous,” but they are still so full of pits that we must ask the poor themselves (the most valid kind of research) why they want or need them. . . .

Most importantly, the findings of such research and the facts on the job market and on welfare should be made known to the public.

Gwen Gillmore
Northampton, Massachusetts

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Leslie Lenkowsky writes:

It is reassuring to know that not everyone in the vicinity of the nation’s capital subscribes to the conventional wisdom on welfare reform. Chester E. Finn, Jr.’s letter discusses two ideas that have not found much favor among liberal reformers lately. The first is the importance of fiscal relief; insofar as it enables states such as New York or California to hold the line on or even reduce taxes or to maintain vital public services, assumption of a greater share of local welfare costs by the federal government might make a real contribution to the reduction of poverty and dependency. The second is the value of “make-work”; even the sorts of jobs provided by community programs like Utah’s may be more beneficial for welfare recipients than staying at home until “suitable” work comes along. Mr. Finn’s suggestion that these ideas be tried is appropriate, but unless he has some like-minded friends in Congress or the executive branch, it is unlikely that they will come to pass.

Gwen Gillmore’s view that most people on welfare cannot work might have commanded wide agreement when our current public-assistance programs were established in 1935, and even for some time afterward, but it hardly can today. Today, well over half of all female heads of families with young children are already in the labor force, so it cannot be presumed that they are incapable of working. (Nor can it automatically be assumed that many of the disabled and elderly are unable to work.) Indeed, one of the least known facts about welfare mothers is the number who do work. Longterm studies of welfare recipients show that a relatively small proportion are chronically on relief; the rest go off the welfare rolls for a variety of reasons, including employment. In addition, the rules now governing the program encourage welfare mothers to work while they receive some benefits, and many do.

Although the number of jobs in the American economy has been increasing at a spectacular rate in recent years, Miss Gillmore maintains that there are still not enough. That may well be true, since the number and kind of jobs are never likely to be adequate for everyone who can or wants to work. But the more important issue is whether the income available from welfare enables some recipients to shun perfectly decent, low-paying jobs of the sort held by many people who are not on welfare. Research on this would certainly be helpful, and it is essential, as Miss Gillmore notes, that the findings be publicized, even when they do not support the pet schemes of welfare reformers.

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