Even as the Senate was trying to put finishing touches on its version of welfare reform last week, some thoughtful Republicans were beginning to raise the question that the nation inevitably will face within the next few years. Assuming that the GOP succeeds ultimately in transferring responsibility for the income support of needy children and mothers from Washington to the states, how much better off will those people - and the country - be?
Most congressional Democrats have tried to keep substantial control of welfare in Washington, where it has been since the Great Depression. It may be that President Clinton will in the end find the Republican legislation unacceptable - and cast a veto that probably could not be overridden.
But he would like to avoid that course of action, and so it is entirely possible that the states may assume much more authority in this field than they have exercised for generations.
What then? The answer given by Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., former drug czar and education secretary William J. Bennett and others is that devolution - the fancy name for shifting responsibility downward in the federal system - by itself is not nearly enough to change the corrosive “welfare culture” or to provide real incentives for recipients to get jobs and take care of their families.
“Shifting control from a federal bureaucracy to a state bureaucracy does not automatically improve things,” Coats said. “State rules are often more onerous than federal regulations. Our goal ought to be to get this out of government entirely - not just out of Washington.”
Many liberals immediately become suspicious when they hear conservatives talking about “privatizing” government responsibilities. The private market is enormously productive but history demonstrates that efficiency, not equity, guides the distribution of its rewards.
But Bennett was at pains to make it clear that this was not just an anti-government screed. “There are too many on our (conservative) side,” he remarked, “who think getting rid of government solves all problems.” His objective, like Coats’, is to help the agencies that really can help the welfare families - in many cases, private groups.
He said that to reporters at a news conference he shared with Coats at the headquarters of Empower America, a conservative think tank, and he repeated it the following morning, when he addressed the faithful at the Christian Coalition convention. He clearly means it.
As one who is deeply skeptical of efforts by Coats, Bennett and other conservatives to dismantle the public school system through the distribution of vouchers for private and parochial schools, I think they have a much better case for “privatizing” welfare.
Already many of the services to troubled families and kids are delivered through private groups like Catholic Charities, the Boys Clubs, etc. Common sense and experience indicate that love, discipline and traditional values are as important as rent assistance or food stamps.
But the reality is that private social service agencies are overwhelmed by their current workload. They fear that as the federal government withdraws from the welfare field, they will not be able to handle the increasing numbers who will turn to them for aid.
The centerpiece of Coats’ plan is the suggestion of a $500-per-person tax credit for everyone, whether itemizing deductions or not, for charitable contributions to groups helping the poor, and a similar credit for anyone who provides home care for individuals in need - the homeless, abused women, patients with debilitating diseases, unmarried pregnant women, etc.
The idea is not his alone. Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., and Reps. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., and Joseph Knollenberg, R-Mich., had previously introduced similar legislation. The measures all have problems, starting with their cost and the contradiction they pose to the powerful Republican drive to eliminate special tax breaks of all kinds and either dramatically reduce personal income tax rates or drop the income tax entirely.
But the goal of this proposal is not simply to help welfare families or reduce direct government spending. The proponents see it as a step to foster the kind of nurturing and community-building local institutions that have provided the sinews of our free society through most of our history.
“We want to open up a debate that goes beyond devolution,” Coats said - and an important debate it is.