Politics & Policy

On Welfare, an Unlikely Voice of Reason

Even Marion Barry can see what is wrong with our welfare system.

It was largely lost amid the glut of post-election news, but last week an important political figure called for a major cutback in social-welfare benefits. In doing so, he denounced welfare as a program that created “a cycle of generational poverty, government dependency, and economic disparity.”

It was not a newly elected Republican or a leader of the Tea Party movement, nor was it a conservative talk-radio host or a Fox News commentator. It didn’t even come from analysts at the Cato Institute. Instead that pronouncement, and the legislation to back it up, came from former Washington mayor Marion Barry, currently a city councilman, who has introduced a bill to impose a strict five-year time limit on welfare benefits in the District of Columbia.

The 1998 federal welfare-reform law imposed such a time limit nationwide. But it allows states to use local funds to continue to provide benefits after recipients hit the federal limit. The District of Columbia was one of the few jurisdictions that chose to do so. It is estimated that as many as 40 percent of D.C. residents who receive welfare do so for longer than five years, nearly a third for more than eight years. The bill would cut off not just cash payments under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, but also child care, housing subsidies, and other benefits paid for with city funds.

As many as 8,000 D.C. residents would immediately lose benefits if the council were to approve the legislation.

It is important to note that Barry represents the city’s poorest neighborhoods. His city-council ward is 93 percent African-American, unemployment is over 25 percent, and more than one in three residents live in poverty. Two-thirds of families in his ward are unmarried women with children. And Barry’s co-sponsor on the legislation, councilwoman Yvette Alexander, represents a nearly equally impoverished area.

They have seen firsthand the failures of welfare.

After all we’ve been throwing money at poverty ever since Lyndon Johnson first declared war on poverty in 1965 — more than $13 trillion so far, with state and local governments laying out another couple of trillion. This year alone, federal welfare spending will exceed $600 billion, to fund 122 separate anti-poverty programs. During his first two years in office, President Obama has already hiked welfare spending by more than $120 billion. And that comes on top of an $80 billion increase under President Bush.

But all those programs and all that money has done little to raise people out of poverty. Instead, as Barry pointed out, welfare “enslave[s] residents in joblessness and dependency on the government rather than lifting them up and giving them an opportunity to achieve self-sufficiency.”

Tommy Wells, a Washington city councilman who opposes the bill and expects to block it in committee, admitted his frustration that “we have generational poverty, and people seem to subsist on these services and we are not able to get them off.”

The real ways to fight poverty are not a secret. It’s not about giving people money in a vain attempt to make poverty more comfortable — it’s about creating conditions on the ground that enable people to take control of their own lives, to enable them to rise above poverty and to become self-sufficient.

President Obama and the Democrats in Congress never tire of telling us how much they care about the poor. If so, perhaps they should listen to Marion Barry.

– Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution.

Michael TannerMr. Tanner is the director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Poverty and Inequality in California and the author of The Inclusive Economy: How to Bring Wealth to America’s Poor.


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