The Common Good
November-December 1996

Welfare Myths

by Rev. Daniel B. Hahn | November-December 1996

THERE ARE THREE big lies about welfare that the Far Right has promoted for decades:

THERE ARE THREE big lies about welfare that the Far Right has promoted for decades: welfare causes dependency, nobody took reforming welfare seriously before the conservatives, and liberals are to be associated with insensitive and bloated government bureaucracy. In the September-October Sojourners, Jim Wallis managed to endorse all three lies as "the liberal sin" ("Hearts Minds"). Had he paused to think before presumably balancing doses of conservative and liberal bashing, he might have considered the following.

To begin, there is no causal link between welfare and dependency. Charles Murray promoted such a link in the 1980s and was roundly discredited by reputable people in the field. Nevertheless, the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council resurrected and promoted the myth in the early 1990s, even providing state legislators with reform blueprints and useful rhetoric. I observed and opposed New York State's conservative legislators as they went into a frenzy of resentment politics. For Wallis to "dis" liberals for noting racism where it exists furthers the Far Right agenda of disabling dissent from its own "popular wisdom."

Ah, but Wallis' point is that "too many liberals cried 'racism' when the system was criticized....Too many times the Democrats had the chance to fix the system, but failed even to try." Oh? And what was the Family Security Act of 1988, chopped liver? For Wallis subsequently to quote Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the primary sponsor of the Family Security Act, while failing to recognize Sen. Moynihan's accomplishment, adds insult to injury.

Finally, liberals have not "bureaucratized the poor." I have been an advocate for 13 years, observing the welfare system become all the more cumbersome as conservatives insisted upon ever more expensive and expansive ways to "detect fraud," monkey with workfare, toughen sanctions, and otherwise distance clients from benefits. To link liberals and bureaucratization is irresponsible. Can you guess what every conservative legislator would say if you suggest consolidating school systems in their affluent suburban districts, as former Gov. Mario Cuomo did? You will most certainly not hear principled endorsements of leaner, more efficient government services.

Liberal sin? The greater sin may be parroting a libelous "popular wisdom," especially while imputing moral high ground to yourself by pointing downward at everybody else.


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