Helping the Poor: A Few Modest Proposals

Commentary, May 1985.


Last fall I published a book entitled Losing Ground. It called attention to the fact that on several of the dimensions we ordinarily use to measure quality of life—unemployment, education, crime, family structure, economic dependence—things have gotten worse, not better, for the poor since the mid-1960’s. I blamed the reforms of the 1960’s for some large proportion of this decline in the fortunes of the poor.

Many readers, liberal and conservative, were prepared to accept Losing Ground‘s account of the problem itself. Some were even prepared to acknowledge that the reforms should be assigned a large share of the blame. But then I had gone on to argue that a federal system must of necessity have such effects. A federal system cannot do much to entice people into behaving in ways that society thinks will be better for them. It cannot even harmlessly relieve the problems created by the unwanted behaviors. All it can do is to stop subsidizing the behaviors it wants to prevent. What would the United States look like, I asked, if we eradicated the entire federal social-welfare system for the healthy working-age population? Better, I answered.