When It Comes to Welfare, Sheila Jackson Lee Got It Right

Change "welfare" to "transitional living fund" suggested Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, in a January 8 speech in the House of Representatives marking the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society "War on Poverty".

Inclusion of "transitional" expresses the true intent of public assistance programs. The word, in fact, is crucial in reforming welfare. Though the congresswoman has sometimes been regarded outlandish, this time she got it right.

Maybe. Hopefully.

Jackson Lee got it right if she really sees "transitional" as being a progression from dependency to independency. If not, she is simply draping the Great Society status quo in trendy semantics. To understand the difference, much history has to be reviewed.

President Bill Clinton had it right in 1996 when he signed his welfare reform bill into law. "Today, we are taking an historic chance to make welfare what it was meant to be, a second chance, not a way of life," said Clinton.

Sadly, Clinton's vision was lost. A half-century after LBJ's crusade American taxpayers have spent $20 trillion on the Great Society programs intended to eradicate poverty. Yet welfare, sadly, remains "a way of life" for millions. Recent changes by the Obama administration seem to codify the trend, not fight for Clinton's vision.

Hopefully, Jackson Lee's desire is to make public assistance a truly transitional "second chance". She is among many policymakers who have searched for the answer. Perhaps the quest for a well-balanced welfare policy has not reached far enough back into history.

The Bible reveals the equilibrium for sound welfare policy: If a person doesn't work he shouldn't eat. (2 Thessalonians 3:10) Further, a man who doesn't provide for his own family is worse than an infidel. (1 Timothy 5:8, emphasis added) Adult children who find loopholes to keep from aiding their aged parents are hypocrites. (Mark 7:9-13)

On the other hand, society must recognize there are individuals with legitimate need for ongoing support. This is part of the Micah 6:8 mandates of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. It is also the embrace of the command in James 1:27 to "care for orphans and widows in their affliction." The whole point of establishing "deacons" (literally, "table-waiters") in the infant church was to provide ongoing help to certain overlooked widows. (Acts 6)

While the Bible recognizes there are people who must have continuing public assistance, it also stipulates that those not in that category must be freed from dependency through employment. Jackson Lee's terminology might capture the proper balance.

The British welfare state shows how important it is to maintain this policy equilibrium. "Great" Britain has become a poster-child of welfarism's ugly countenance. Dr. Anthony Daniel, who worked many years in British social welfare institutions, chronicled the horrors in his book, Our Culture, What's Left of It (written under his pseudonym, Theodore Dalrymple).

Daniel describes the widespread malnutrition he dealt with in the hospital where he served. The "smooth and raw magenta tongues" of patients starving through sheer neglect signified the "family breakdown" caused by rampant welfarism and the attendant collapse of culture. It was all encouraged, he wrote, "by our laws and fiscal system, and made viable by welfare payments."

The public mind often stereotypes welfare recipients, but there are many who don't fit the image. For example, 66 percent of retirees depend on Social Security for more than half their income, according to the Social Security Administration. Nearly a quarter of the elderly depend on Social Security benefits for their total support.

Yet when Social Security was enacted as public policy in 1935 it was supposed to be part of that delicate balance between dependence and independence. Total dependency wasn't the aim even in that Depression-devastated era. Rather, Social Security would be part of a three-legged support system, along with personal savings and family aid.

But Great Society progressivism overwhelmed real progress, and, aided and abetted by an increasingly adolescent culture, lost the vision for thrift and destroyed the rich family culture of a significant part of society.

Thus President Ronald Reagan's worry in his 1986 reform proposal was a welfare-induced "family crisis." Reagan said he was "talking about the crisis of family breakdown, especially among the welfare poor, both black and white." The President cited especially the problem of out-of-wedlock births and absentee fathers.

The crisis "gathering" in 1986 is a tsunami in 2014. That's why Sheila Jackson Lee's idea to restore the "transitional" idea to welfare should be taken seriously.

To be fair, prior to the 1960s public assistance was unjust because it was uneven. States and municipalities varied in their welfare policies. "The poor depended too much on where they happened to live," noted a Heritage Foundation analysis. LBJ's Great Society "went to the opposite extreme – strict and suffocating centralization," said the report. That's what Bill Clinton was attempting to correct. It earned him the ire of some allies on the Left.

Richard Nixon centered his welfare reform efforts on "workfare," a term coined by James Charles Evers, a 1960s civil rights leader. Workfare meant able-bodied persons applying for public support had to be pursuing work or improvement of job skills.

I was in the White House in that era, and watched and occasionally participated as Howard Phillips and others tried to implement such reforms and help the nation and individuals escape the welfare swamp.

If anything, I learned welfare reform is incremental, a matter of inches, not miles. And it takes a robust shove to move the bulky policy even a fraction. Getting "transitional" into the policy can be a hefty push if Congress will do more than speechify, but actually ratify and apply the idea.

If Sheila Jackson Lee means what I think she means, then I agree. Get the "transitional" in welfare policy through practical policy measures that encourage people to move from dependency to independency.

Free CP Newsletters

Join over 250,000 others to get the top stories curated daily, plus special offers!


Most Popular

More In Opinion