Can This System Be Saved?

When President Lyndon Johnson started his great War on Poverty, he said it would help people get off government aid and onto their own feet. "The days of the dole are numbered," he announced. Well, President Johnson was wrong. The welfare caseloads have continued to grow, with no end in sight. Welfare dependency, once a temporary situation, has become a more or less permanent way of life for a large share of America's poor. In recent months, a cascade of reform proposals has appeared designed to change that. Several states have passed new regulations with the hope of reducing welfare dependency. How? By changing people's behavior. The old philosophy of welfare put the blame for poverty on external circumstances, like ghettos and racism. But current welfare reform is based on a new philosophy: that chronic poverty flows from personal behavior. The three major causes of welfare dependency are: dropping out of school, having children outside marriage, and not working. To put it the other way around, any person who simply finishes school, gets married and stays married, and keeps a steady job is unlikely to remain poor. Welfare reformers hope that new government policy can encourage people to do just those things. For example, Wisconsin has a program called "learnfare." It cuts payments to welfare mothers if their teenaged children drop out of school. Then there's a program dubbed "bridefare." It reverses one of the most pernicious aspects of the existing welfare code, which encourages single parenthood by cutting welfare benefits to women who marry. Bridefare allows teen mothers to continue collecting welfare when they get married. Several states are also trying workfare, which requires able-bodied welfare recipients to enroll in job training or education programs. The growth of welfare reform packages is a clear signal that policy-makers are giving up on the old welfare philosophy. The interesting thing is, they're harkening back to a distinction long practiced by Christian charities: a distinction between what used to be called the worthy poor and the unworthy poor. In modern terms, the distinction is between people who are willing to work hard to regain their economic footing--and people who are chronically poor because their poverty grows out of destructive behavior: having children out of wedlock, abusing alcohol and drugs, refusing to work. Historically, the Church has treated these two groups quite differently. People willing to work just need temporary economic assistance. But the chronically poor need a more directive approach, with assistance tied squarely to a commitment to reform their values and behavior. The chronically poor have become a small but persistent underclass. And policy-makers are beginning to see that welfare assistance must address questions of life-style and values. Washington, D.C., Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly says the War on Poverty has to be replaced by what she calls a "War of Values." Government policy can be one weapon in that war, with programs that reward virtuous behavior instead of destructive behavior. Churches should also be in the inner cities, ministering to people caught in the cycle of dependency. Work with them, love them, and introduce them to the power of God who alone can work an inner transformation.


Chuck Colson


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