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Reviving the Old Consensus

March 1, 2002
By Michael B. Barkey

“In our generosity we have created a system of hand-outs, a second-rate set of social services which damages and demeans its recipients, and destroys any semblance of human dignity that they have managed to retain through their adversity.

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“In our generosity we have created a system of hand-outs, a second-rate set of social services which damages and demeans its recipients, and destroys any semblance of human dignity that they have managed to retain through their adversity. In the long run, welfare payments solve nothing, for the giver or receiver; free Americans deserve the chance to be fully self-supporting.”

These wonderfully prescient words flowed from Bobby Kennedy’s lips during the heyday of the Great Society. The welfare state, said Bobby, has “largely failed as an anti-poverty weapon.” His brother John agreed: “No lasting solution to the problem [of poverty] can be bought with a welfare check,” reported the New York Times.

Thirty years before Camelot, in the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt introduced Aid to Dependent Children (ADC). At first, ADC was little more than assistance to poverty-stricken widows struggling to avoid placing children in orphanages. But over time, ADC grew to become Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the welfare entitlement that drew the Kennedys’ ire.

Roosevelt had issued a stern warning when he introduced ADC that went ignored: “Continued dependence on relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”

Without a Vision, the People Perish

Liberal icons of the 1990s lacked the vision of their ideological forefathers. The American Dream that anyone can succeed through perseverance and hard work disappeared from the liberal mind during the 1960s and 1970s, giving rise to a dramatic expansion of the welfare state. The poor came to be viewed as helpless victims . . . and became welfare’s victims instead. Dependency replaced opportunity for America’s poor.

Fortunately, the 1990s ushered in an era of conservative governance, which ended AFDC and conditioned public assistance—now, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—upon work.

Liberals warned of great horrors. Daniel Patrick Moynihan proclaimed the 1996 welfare reform law “the most brutal act of social policy since reconstruction.” Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, described it as “the biggest betrayal of children and the poor since the CDF began.”

Jesse Jackson and Jesse Jackson Jr., now in Congress, described work requirements as akin to slavery. Even high-level Clinton administration officials resigned in protest, one penning an article titled “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done.” And throughout the debate, Senator Ted Kennedy, the younger brother of John and Bobby, remained one of welfare reform’s staunchest foes.

Facts Speak for Themselves

Unlike liberalism at the end of the twentieth century, the liberalism of JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and FDR—the darlings of the Democratic Party—had an unyielding faith in people’s ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. With welfare reform, people were again challenged to make the most out of their lives, which they did.

Since 1996, the country’s welfare caseload has been cut in half. There are 4.2 million fewer people—including 2.3 million fewer children—living in poverty. The poverty rates for black children and single mothers have both fallen to their lowest points in U.S. history. And there are nearly 2 million fewer hungry children today.

When given the chance and incentive to succeed—as the Kennedy brothers and FDR knew—most people take it.

A New Consensus

The undeniable success of welfare reform has led some critics to reconsider their views. For instance, Wendell Primus, who resigned his position with the Clinton administration in protest, admitted in August, “welfare reform is working better than I thought it would. . . . The sky isn’t falling. Whatever we have been doing over the last five years, we ought to keep it going.”

So what have we been doing?

We are no longer devaluing the habits of self-reliance and individual responsibility that are critical to economic and social advancement. We have begun to do again what America always did in the past to help people raise their station in life: set them free.

What we are now seeing is the revival of an old consensus, whose adherents included such ideologically diverse figures as FDR, JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich—all of whom knew the American Dream to be real.

The next year, which will require reauthorization of the 1996 welfare reform law in a time of recession, will fortify this consensus, if federal lawmakers remain vigilant and state-level officials remain strong.

Michael B. Barkey is president of the Center for the Study of Compassionate Conservatism and editor of A Primer on Compassionate Conservatism (forthcoming).

For more information . . .

Solving President Bush’s Urban Problem. Renowned urban analyst Myron Magnet predicts President George W. Bush can demonstrate that compassionate conservatism works for the poor: a constituency to which Democrats have long offered lip service but no true and lasting solutions. All that’s required, explains Magnet, is restigmatizing illegitimacy and restoring civil order to inner-city neighborhoods. (City Journal, Winter 2001, 8 pp.)

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