Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that U.S. Senator George Allen is celebrating the tenth anniversary of what he considers one of his most important accomplishments during his term as Governor of Virginia (1994-1998):

U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., came to Richmond's Gilpin Court yesterday to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his welfare-reform program.

As governor, Allen pushed through the General Assembly in 1995 a welfare-reform plan that required able-bodied recipients to work. It also limited welfare payments to two years.

A reluctant President Bill Clinton signed federal welfare-reform legislation a year later.

Virginia sought and won a waiver from the federal law.

"Our plan was more comprehensive, tougher, more effective," Allen said.

Asked why he is talking about an accomplishment as governor rather than as a senator, Allen said the federal plan is coming up for renewal this fall and he wants to make sure that the Virginia program, again, receives a waiver.

"We don't want to be weakened by the federal law," he said.

Seeing Tyler Whitley's article in today's paper reminded me that I had written about Governor Allen's welfare-reform program at the time it was initiated. The following piece appeared in the Metro Herald in September 1995:

Allen Heading in Right Direction on Welfare, But Falls Short of Goal
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.

Once again, as he envisions large-scale reform of Virginia's welfare system, Governor George Allen is following his Jeffersonian instincts in the right direction. Once again, he is failing to follow those instincts to their logical and ethical conclusion.

At a meeting of private-sector welfare providers in Fredericksburg, Allen noted, correctly, that we all "want to help those among us who are most in need so they will have some hope and freedom." He also argued, correctly, that "for too long government has wrongfully assumed the rights and responsibilities of individuals and private entities," adding that "the government cannot, and in fact should not, do it alone." According to the Washington Times, he said government "can help promote the work ethic, self- reliance, and a positive economic environment."

On this point, Allen is wrong. Our experience in the past century shows quite the opposite: When the government gets involved in welfare, far from promoting these good things, it destroys the work ethic, undermines self- reliance, and creates a troubled economic environment.

Why doesn't Allen take his Jeffersonian principles to their logical and ethical conclusion? That is, why doesn't he say outright that government should not be in the welfare business, that the private sector and the voluntary actions of individuals are better suited to help the poor, that we need separation of charity and state as much as we need separation of church and state?

Allen has fallen under the spell of Great Society rhetoric, which says that the government has a proper role to play in the provision of charity, that a "compassionate" society is one that uses tax-funded bureaucracies to subsidize poverty. Only when he shakes himself from that reverie will he be able to lead Virginia in a truly revolutionary -- truly Jeffersonian -- direction.

In his book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, Professor Marvin Olasky explains that virtue and compassion are not government characteristics. Only individuals and the voluntary associations they form can provide compassionate assistance to the poor. Compassion only occurs willingly, voluntarily.

Involuntary programs funded by tax dollars always fall short of their supposed goal of raising the poor out of poverty. After 30 years and $5 trillion of aid to the poor, the poor are still with us, the inner-city black family has been destroyed, and single-mother families are becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Private sector programs, which offer assistance only with "strings attached," are far more effective -- and far less costly -- than government assistance programs. The "strings" that are attached to these programs include things like: get a job -- stop using drugs -- don't have sex out of wedlock -- return to school -- get married. Such "strings" mean that aid recipients must take responsibility for their own lives and learn to live with the consequences of their decisions. These "strings" tie the recipients to their communities and those communities' highest moral values. As a result, recipients of private charity are better able to rise out of their adverse circumstances and become productive, healthy members of our society.

In contrast, government programs are doomed to fail by this and any other standard. Writing in the monthly journal National Minority Politics (August 1995), Robert Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise notes: "Governments operate through bureaucracies which are not easily receptive to input from the population that is served and which add greatly to the cost of services (in some cases absorbing as much as 70 percent of the funds channeled through them). The cumbersome regulations imposed by these bureaucracies and the fact that the professionals who dictate these regulations are physically distant from the problems combine to make most government programs costly, misdirected, and ineffective."

Deroy Murdock, an adjunct fellow of the Fairfax-based Atlas Economic Research Foundation, explains the difference provided by private organizations a few pages later in the same publication. "Private charities physically see aid recipients when they come in for their benefits. This allows them to judge when things are going right or wrong in their lives and respond accordingly. Public bodies tend to spew checks out of computers. When someone peers through the window of the envelope bearing his payment, no one is on the other side to see if he or she is misusing these funds or sorely lacking something besides cash."

Private charities, because they are neighborhood-based, are able to provide more one-to-one attention and to take care of non-financial needs -- spiritual or psychic needs that computers and overworked bureaucrats cannot or will not address. Individuals, in other words, can show genuine compassion. Bureaucracies lack compassion -- utterly.

Governor Allen should take whatever steps are necessary to take welfare out of the hands of bureaucrats and put it back where it belongs: with the family, neighborhood, church or synagogue, and union hall. Anything short of that betrays the Governor's self-ascribed Jeffersonian inspiration.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Richard Sincere is chairman of the Libertarian Party of Virginia.

I can't think of a word I'd change in that article, nearly ten years later.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brother, can you spare a new post?