US liberal exposed flaw of welfare policies

Opinion Article

2011 February, 12

I always get a laugh from bureaucrats and people who hang around the ridges of social policy when I ask what the next logical program solution will be after we have exhausted the Life Promotion program: do we devise a breathing promotion program?


But wry amusement is about all the progress I have made so far in shining a light on the fact that too many government programs are either plain useless or actively counter-productive to resolving the very problems they are intended to confront.


That one has reached the dead end of service delivery when we start promoting life itself is not even apparent to us. Oblivious to irony and thick-skinned against mockery, programs such as Life Promotion endure. It is unfair to single this particular one out because it is only one out of hundreds of such programs, and the umpteenth generation of like programs of the past.


Ten years ago I suggested there were three parts to the passive welfare paradigm: unconditional income transfer by government to individuals; passive service delivery by government in areas that displaced responsibilities that should be held by individuals, families and communities; and a mentality of entitlement on the part of recipients and of responsibility on the part of the deliverers.


The first aspect is well known, and while there was strong resistance to the view that unconditional income support caused or compounded social problems, there has been a breakthrough in the past decade.


Conditionality in income support now has bipartisan support, and federal Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin has led a revolution on this reform principle.


The second part, passive service delivery by government, is not so well known and there has been little advancement in the understanding of political leaders and policy-makers. Despite numerous attempts to switch the lights on at the level of public policy discussion, and despite hammering the idea at the coalface of our work in Cape York Peninsula, the paradigm shift is still in front of us.


It is not hard to understand that in communities where there is a large life expectancy deficit and people are afflicted with poor health, suicide, violence and despair, what such a program as Life Promotion is directed to.


These are real problems, for sure, and they need to be tackled. I just don’t believe there is a government program solution to them. These problems cannot be solved by government departments or community organisations developing service solutions. More fundamental development solutions are needed.


The difficulty one faces in trying to get decision-makers to take passive service delivery by government as a serious problem (not the least a wasteful direction of resources) is that there are government services that are perfectly correct and are the legitimate responsibility of government. 


They are not passive services.


Moreover, services to the vulnerable and elderly are correct and a hallmark of civilised society.


My point about passive service delivery is about governments delivering programs in areas where the responsibility should lie with individuals, families and communities. My point is not that nothing should be done about social ills and needs; my point is to challenge the idea that a service program delivered by government is the best response.


As early as the 1960s, the American intellectual and politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan described the growing social services strategy of US governments as one of “feeding the sparrows by feeding the horses”.


A long-serving Democrat senator from New York, Moynihan was one of the most erudite politicians elected to the US congress. A posthumous collection of his writings, A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, published last year, makes for fascinating reading.


Formerly a sociologist from Harvard University, Moynihan caused a firestorm with his 1964 report to US president Lyndon Johnson, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, which argued “that the master problem is that the Negro family structure is crumbling”.


In a briefing note to Johnson he wrote: “The breakdown of the Negro family is the principal cause of all the problems of delinquency, crime, school dropouts, unemployment, and poverty which are bankrupting our cities, and could very easily lead to a kind of political anarchy unlike anything we have known.


“Most of the welfare assistance, the special education efforts, the community action programs, which we are now doubling and redoubling, are essentially the provision of surrogate family services. Society is trying to do for these young persons what in normal circumstances parents do for their children. Only these children have no parents.


“We can go on providing this kind of welfare assistance forever. The evidence of a quartercentury is that it does not change anything.”


Moynihan was shouted down by the progressives of the era and the Moynihan report remains today an infamous landmark in the debate on social policy. The truth was that Moynihan was in fact a classic liberal in the American sense. It was just that he was much more clear-sighted about what a truly progressive social policy might be.


The black writer Shelby Steele argues that America took a fatefully wrong turn after the achievement of civil rights in 1965, because at the moment black Americans finally secured their rights, they abandoned their responsibilities at the altar of white guilt. As victims of historic discrimination blacks were now owed a future by the rest of society: equality meant they had a right not to take responsibility.


An iconoclast within the Democratic Party, Moynihan belled the cat on this problem on the eve of Johnson’s launch of the Great Society policies aimed at eradicating poverty and achieving racial justice.


In a memorandum to the Secretary of Labor he wrote:


“One of the things it seems to me has got to be said before long is that the greatest single danger facing the Negroes of America is that the whites are going to put them on welfare.


“The conservative votes of most communities profess a great distaste for welfare but in fact it will be a good deal easier just to pension the Negroes off, as it were, than to accept the major and sometimes wrenching changes in our way of doing things that will be required if we are going to bring them in as full-fledged members of the larger community.


“Nothing would be more terrible, if it should come to pass. We will have created an entire subculture of dependency, alienation, and despair. We have already done as much to whole sections of Appalachia, as I understand it, as also to the Indian reservations.


“It is in truth the way we cope with this kind of problem. As against giving men proper jobs and a respectable place in their community and family.”


Goodness. To think Moynihan had these insights in 1964.


Martin Luther King’s dream from the time civil rights were achieved in 1965 might have been realised if Moynihan had been heeded and the reconstruction of black families had become the goal instead of welfare.


Policy towards Native Americans and the so-called poor white trash in places such as Appalachia might have been more coherent.


The influence on policy thinking in Canada and Australia might also have been more beneficial.


Instead, 4 1/2 decades later we are still trying to see a way through the debris of broken policy. What a head-shakingly depressing thing it is to reflect that it has taken decades for serious policy thinking to return to the Moynihan report of 1964.


Moynihan believed that the greatest source of objection to his analysis came not from black civil rights leaders, but rather from white liberals and particularly those in the academies.


In a 1984 letter he wrote: “My animus, then and now, is directed to those members of the academic community who for political reasons of their own dissociated themselves from my research, or in many cases, viciously misrepresented it. This sort of thing was much too prevalent in that ‘slum of a decade’, and [is] only just beginning to wane.”


Moynihan’s most devastating point: “We have paid a fearful price for what American scholars in those years decided not to learn about.”

US liberal exposed flaw of welfare policies