Saving the Poor from Welfare

Reason, December 1984.


There is a lesson to be learned from our national experience with the Great Society programs of the 1960s and their successors in the years since. The lesson is that the kinds of help we as a nation want to provide are more limited than we commonly suppose. Moreover, even when we want to help, the conditions under which a national program can do so without causing more harm than good are more tightly constrained than we suppose.

This point might seem tailor-made to relieve us of responsibility for persons in need. But I believe just the contrary: that the moral imperative to do something to correct the situation of poor people, and especially the minority poor, is at least as powerful now as when Lyndon Johnson took office in 1963. There is ample evidence to support the case that the reforms flowing from the new wisdom of the 1960s were a blunder on purely pragmatic grounds. But I am convinced that what we did was also wrong on moral grounds, however admirable our intentions may have been.