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Welfare Debate Puts Blame for Poverty Mainly on Poor : Analysis: Self-destructive behavior is seen as a key cause. For decades, policy was shaped by faulting society.

March 24, 1995|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — The debate over welfare reform marks a genuine milestone in an argument that has shaped social policy for generations.

Literally since Colonial days, the debate over poverty in America has revolved around the same question: Is the persistence of poverty primarily the fault of society, or of the poor themselves?

One side in this argument is never entirely triumphant. Both explanations always find at least some favor and the tension between them defines the evolution of policy, first in one direction, then in the other. The vast patchwork of government programs that deal with poverty often involve a compromise, or a standoff, between the two views.

But at any given point, one side or the other in this argument typically holds the upper hand and this week's welfare debate symbolizes the ascendancy of the perspective that affixes blame for poverty primarily to self-defeating and self-destructive behavior by the poor.

Sensitive to charges that they are lacking in compassion, Republican lawmakers are insisting that the real villains in this drama are government programs that encourage bad behavior. "What is really cruel is the current incentive that pulls young women into the system and holds them forever in this cruel trap," declared Rep. Jan Meyers (R-Kan.).

But the bottom line, according to the prevailing conservative analysis, is that only moral renewal can uplift the poor and only a retrenchment of government aid to the poor can furrow the ground for moral renewal. As the debate commenced this week, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) summarized that belief in the bluntest possible terms: "This bill will reverse the decades-long federal policy of rewarding unacceptable and self-destructive behavior. We will no longer reward for doing the wrong thing."

President Clinton, to a far greater extent than the new Republican majority in Congress, has argued for a continuation of material assistance to help bring the poor into the economic mainstream. He has advocated such ideas as a more generous earned income tax credit, guaranteed universal health care and expanded training and education for welfare recipients.

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But Clinton probably did as much as anyone else to shift the debate toward individual behavior by linking his calls for aid with demands for "personal responsibility" and by decrying moral breakdown from a pulpit in Memphis, Tenn., where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. When Clinton failed to push his own welfare reform proposal during the first two years of his presidency, Republicans appropriated the personal responsibility theme but virtually discarded the call for more government aid.

The focus on individual behavior across the political spectrum reverses the prevailing attitude of the 1960s, the last great wave of social policy reform.

Even then, liberal reform advocates often spoke about the need to "rehabilitate" the poor from a pervasive "culture of poverty," as noted by historian James T. Patterson in his book, "America's Struggle Against Poverty." But, as the civil-rights and welfare-rights movements gained strength through the decade, the focus on behavior operated within steadily constricting boundaries of acceptability.

The historic turning point came in 1965, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor and now a Democratic senator from New York, wrote that a rising illegitimacy rate threatened to submerge the African American community in a "tangle of pathology."

On the left, Moynihan was roundly denounced as racist. Even his assumption that two-parent families were preferable came under assault. "What may seem to be a disease to the white middle class may be a healthy adaptation to the Negro lower class," declared civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

Especially in the wake of Moynihan's repudiation, discussions about alleviating poverty shifted from changing the behavior of the poor to directly improving their economic circumstances.

"The assumption was what made poor people poor was a lack of money to spend, not a cultural deprivation," said historian David J. Garrow.

Once the assumption took root that external, not internal, conditions created the problems of the poor, reformers logically looked to government to eliminate those barriers. President Lyndon B. Johnson responded with his War on Poverty.

Never as sweeping in impact as either its critics or supporters contended, the War on Poverty offered an array of educational, training and other programs intended to expand opportunity among the poor. In what inadvertently became its most celebrated idea, the Johnson Administration created local administrative structures intended to give poor people greater control over federal funds flowing into their neighborhoods.

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