Thursday, September 10, 2015

The New Politics of Poverty

By Lawrence M. Mead
Reviewed by Robert A. Sirico, CSP
October 14, 1992

Just about everyone, regardless of political stripe, seems to agree that there is a crisis in the welfare system. Even if our conclusions differ as what exactly to do about it, we all agree that the work ethic among Americans is eroding before our eyes. Perhaps that terribly obscure and unnecessarily narrow phrase "family values" this election season is really an attempt to discuss the value of fostering a society whose members learn how to function both well and productively.

Lawrence Mead, an associate professor of politics at New York University, initiates just such a discussion. Professor Mead, who has probably spent more time as a policy analyst in Washington than is good for him, has written a balanced book that will enable us to examine the phenomena of nonwork among the poor, and the "new politics" it has engendered, with greater insight and clarity.

This rather hefty tome considers the subject of welfare dependency from almost every imaginable angle, and it is written by a scholar whose previous work (Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship, 1986) might merit him the title of "the Father of Workfare." While crediting the work of George Gilder (Wealth and Poverty, 1984) and Charles Murray (Losing Ground, 1984) for setting the agenda for welfare reform, Professor Mead's own work has been the occasion for the renewed debate over the predicating the reception of welfare assistance with responsibility. Mr. Mead is concerned that a way be found to use the poor's own energy to break the apparent cycle of defeatism. He believes that what is needed are programs that are "authoritative without being authoritarian."

In this present book Mr. Mead intends, in part, to reply to the critics of his previous work, as well as to get his readers to focus beyond the obvious fact that some people are poor. Poverty, we are reminded, is a state of affairs that always has been, and if Jesus was correct, always will be part of the human social reality. Mr. Mead wants us to probe the question more deeply and ask why the poor, in greater numbers, have stopped working.

The question is, after all, a legitimate and indeed necessary one if we are really concerned about helping people. Even the founding fathers of the welfare state, such as Keynes, envisioned the need for a welfare state would diminish as prosperity increased. Instead, we find ourselves up against the reality that some sections of the poor have simply stopped working to better their state.

Mr. Mead demonstrates that while the percentages of those considered able to work rises, the numbers of heads of households actually working declines. In his previous work Mr. Mead argued that the permissiveness of the welfare state, along with its unwillingness to set standards of behavior, is the cause of its failure, than the extent to which it did or did not assist the poor.

The question in focus in this book is why the poor are not working. The stereotype of the typical poor person as one of the working poor is, the author claims, a virtual myth. Those in poverty who work begin to rise, slowly but definitely, out of poverty. If Mr. Mead's study is accurate, and his case is persuasively presented, then a rethinking of the approach to poverty program development is long overdue, and the extent to which public policy presupposes a working population of the poor will need to be reconsidered.

Mr. Mead's results directly challenge the reticence one frequently encounters among well intentioned policy planners to consider questions of behavior, work ethic, and social standards when designing poverty programs. The idea that requiring some set of standards of the poor for assistance is mean-spirited, harsh, judgmental, and even "unchristian," must be laid to rest once and for all.

It would appear, moreover, that this is the general attitude of the American public. Polls indicate that there is a preference among Americans that social programs promote self-sufficiency, not dependency.

One by one Mr. Mead sets up then demolishes a series of explanations for nonwork among the poor: low wages, lack of jobs, racial bias, lack of child care -- all these and more are examined and shown not to be the root of the problem. The problem, Mr. Mead convincingly shows, the passive personality trait which results from a psychology of poverty.

This contention leads Mr. Mead into a detailed exploration of human nature, and the various programs proposed to get at the core problem.

Professor Mead makes a cogent observation when he says that "Once radicals redistributed. Today, they merely exempt from social standards." Certainly this is a deadly shift. He is also correct to observe that "The old issues were economic and structural; the new ones are social and personal." But to get to the bottom of all this, I believe we must be careful not to overlook the connection that motivation and incentive have with economics and legislation.

The debates over standards in welfare policy have become political issues, in great part, precisely because of the government’s larger commitment to the poor. To de politicize the moral concern (which is not the same as dropping the moral concern) would require a disinvestment by the government in this area, along with a concomitant increase in the role of mediating institutions, most especially religious ones, in retrieving their responsibility and reasserting their moral force, too frequently muted by governmental intervention.

Professor Mead fails to see how crucial this approach is. He says, "It is one thing to say that a dose of market competition can cure collectivist lethargy or union featherbedding, quite another to say it can cause people to obey the law or stay married."

Here, Mr. Mead misses the point. It is not a dose of market competition that is required to cure anything, but a social and economic system that does not give incentives for people to act immorally, in socially destructive ways, and that places itself in competition with the very agencies capable of dealing with the deepest human needs.

Mr. Mead's proposal is a moderate one -- to "clean up" welfare. Perhaps mine is more radical -- to shift the provision of aid to those sectors of society most able and best equipped to provide the moral context and standard that will authentically aid the poor.