The welfare reform that Congress passed last year ends unlimited federal aid to poor families and limits families to five years on the welfare rolls. Control of welfare is turned over largely to the states, but stiff new work rules require them to have most adult recipients working by 2002, while aid to legal aliens is virtually eliminated.
The press has commented profusely on these radical changes. It has said little, however, about the intense battle among experts going on behind the headlines. Some comity used to prevail among those on left and right who advise the government about how to handle welfare. As recently as 1988, specialists on both sides collaborated in a reform that extended welfare benefits, which liberals wanted, while stiffening work requirements, which conservatives wanted. The new reform, in contrast, is unabashedly conservative. The Republican majority in Congress forced it upon the Democrats and President Clinton. This victory was also a triumph for conservative experts over their liberal opponents, who had shaped national welfare policy for most of the preceding thirty years.
“Liberal experts” here includes nearly all the researchers who study poverty and welfare in universities and liberal think tanks, for example at the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin or the Urban Institute in Washington. It includes advocates such as Marion Wright Edelman and the staffs of liberal foundations such as Ford and Rockefeller. This group believes that poverty is due to “barriers” to opportunity such as racism or lack of jobs and child care. Accordingly, society rather than the poor is responsible for poverty. Government must overcome it by providing various new benefits to the dependent, such as guaranteed child and health care. It can promote work among welfare recipients by “making work pay,” but it should not require people to work because too many of the poor might be unable to do so.
On the other side are conservative welfare experts, such as Charles Murray and Robert Rector, and the Republican staffs of committees in Congress. They say government, not society, is responsible for poverty, because welfare and other social programs in effect “pay” poor adults to live improvidently. It is largely by having babies out of wedlock and declining to work that people gain access to aid. Accordingly, the answer is to abolish welfare for the working-aged or at least impose severe work requirements. To do this is only to expect of the poor the self-reliance that America expects of all citizens.
While this liberal-conservative debate is well-known, few realize how completely communication between the two sides has broken down. Liberal experts hold almost all academic positions dealing with poverty. They invite few conservatives to their conferences, and none are named to academic or foundation committees on poverty. On the other side, conservatives control the corridors of power. In Congress, liberal experts and advocates are not invited to testify on welfare, or are dismissed out of hand. At the state level, governors plunge ahead with reforms to drive welfare rolls down, snubbing pleas from universities to study the effects. Liberal think tanks and foundations plan surveys of families to see if harm results, but actual policymakers pay them little heed.
Attempts to bridge the differences have failed. Clinton appointed as his welfare planners David Ellwood and Mary Jo Bane, moderate liberals from Harvard who were prepared to require that welfare adults work after two years on the rolls. But advocates and congressional liberals demanded that jobs be guaranteed to anyone who couldn't find one, and this made the Clinton reform too costly to enact. When the Republicans took over Congress and crafted their very different reform, Bane and Ellwood resigned. Peter Edelman, Ellwood's successor and the husband of Marion Wright Edelman, also resigned and attacked Clinton for signing the bill. On the other hand, some conservative experts—myself among them—questioned the need to cut welfare funding or set time limits for aid, believing that tough work programs were enough to bring the rolls down. The advice was ignored, as it did not satisfy the conservative urge to curb federal aid.
In part, the impasse reflects class divisions. Experts on left and right typically come from very different places in life. Contrary to what one might expect, liberals as a group are the more privileged. They generally went to better schools and hold better jobs. Background matters, because academic social policy is an intensely elitist game. Without a Ph.D. from a good graduate school and a good academic job, it is hard to get attention. The liberal experts who dominate the universities exude confidence. They possess the rarefied statistical research skills that command prestige in academia. Whatever their recent reverses, they take refuge in their good intentions and their expertise. They want to “protect children” from regressive changes. They look down on their conservative foes as mere publicists who distort the evidence about poverty, do not know enough statistics, and do no serious research.
Conservative experts generally have lived less exalted lives. They typically came up the hard way, with less education and more twists and turns in their careers. They are often less confident and skilled than their opposites. But, due in part to their less privileged origins, they understand popular sentiment about poverty, and this is their strength. Liberals think of poverty as a material deficit that government can make good with new benefits. Conservatives know that it is first of all a moral problem. The patterns of crime, unwed pregnancy, and nonwork that contribute to poverty are intensely unpopular with the voters. Conservatives are willing to confront those patterns as wrong, while liberals are not. This fact, more than any other, explains the conservatives' recent political success.
The elite conflict replays the battle of Cavalier and Roundhead from the English Civil War. Liberal experts are personally attractive and accomplished, and they think they should be given authority over social policy for this reason. They conjur up earnest visions of all that government could do for the poor with the right commitments. Conservative experts are often less commanding as individuals, and what they recommend is initially less attractive. But they articulate well the public distrust of programming that rests only on academic theories and seems indifferent to values. America is a meritocratic nation that admires personal achievement, but first of all it is a populist nation that insists that public policy reflect popular values.
What ultimately divides the two sides, I think, are unspoken images of who the poor are as people. Are they victims or exploiters of the society? One issue here is moral responsibility. Conservatives hold poor adults accountable for their condition, whereas liberals present them as products of social forces, people of whom nothing can be expected. A deeper issue is competence. Are the poor able to be held responsible for anything? Most liberals reluctantly answer no. They view poor adults as psychologically disabled by circumstances; people feel overwhelmed by social conditions, so they are. Conservatives see them more externally. They focus on behavior and potential rather than inner insecurities. So they hold the poor responsible, but they also honor them with more respect for their capability.
Such images are remarkably impervious to empirical disproof. Liberals speak of “barriers” preventing the poor from supporting themselves. The evidence for these is weak, and even if it were stronger, it is difficult to imagine circumstances where the academic left would put any onus for poverty on the poor themselves. Whatever is done to remove barriers, liberals still see the needy as too victimized to take responsibility for their own condition. Conservatives claim, equally implausibly, that the poor can be no less self-reliant than other people. No adversity can be imagined that would stop conservatives from asserting that the poor can support themselves if only government requires them to.
These images, I believe, reflect psychological needs rather than reality. Experts on both sides tend to prize personal mastery and project their denied vulnerabilities on the poor. Liberal intellectuals, however, do this more radically, reflecting their greater privilege. They want the poor to have all the advantages they had—to be entitled. But in wishing this, they condescend. Such a distance separates them socially from those they would help that the poor become people fundamentally unlike themselves. So liberals find it impossible to expect from the poor any self-reliance at all. In short, they empathize without identifying.
Most conservative experts come from backgrounds closer to poverty than their opponents. For them, too, poverty represents weakness, but they are more afraid that they might become weak and poor themselves. To them, poverty is threatening, not just regrettable. So they moralize rather than condescend. They reprove the poor for misbehavior as they would their own children. They demand that they “shape up.” In short, they identify without empathizing.
This battle is more personal than public, more about these differences of background and perception than about policy. The experts are stuck in a hall of mirrors where they see themselves or their own fears rather than the reality of poverty. To escape would require a process of critical self-examination where both sides withdrew their projections. Only then could they ask what poor people really require to overcome their problems.
Short of this inward solution, how might the war of the two worlds be resolved? Over time, the voters have repudiated liberal experts, with their antiseptic, purely economic view of poverty, and embraced the conservatives, with their focus on good behavior. That pressure has already forced Democratic politicians to adjust. It might finally force a reckoning among liberal experts as well. But the mandarins are deeply dug into the foundation and university worlds. From those redoubts, political reverses merely fortify their will to criticize the society. Liberals will continue to dominate much of the discussion of poverty and welfare in the media and the culture. Reporters seeking commentary on these problems will continue to call up professors at Harvard.
On the other side, conservatives may overreach themselves. The current welfare reform could conceivably produce clearcut hardship, enough to turn the nation against cuts and limits on aid. Then the bold optimism of the right that poor people can take care of themselves would be questioned. But this, in the end, is unlikely. The welfare rolls have been falling sharply for the last three years, under pressure from preceding welfare changes as well as a good economy, and remarkably little hardship has appeared.
More likely, reform will take a shape tending to question both extremes in the national debate. States are increasingly changing welfare so as to preserve the chief concerns of both left and right. They are still aiding most needy families, but they are also expecting the adults to work. Policies that seem incompatible to most experts are in fact combined as reform progresses outside the Beltway. By such means, the welfare rolls may be driven down substantially without denying aid to the desperate. As this reality sinks in, welfare may become a practical problem that government can manage, rather than—as it too often is today—a battleground of elite psychic warfare.
Lawrence M. Mead is Professor of Politics at New York University and author of Beyond Entitlement and The New Politics of Poverty.