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It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like A Christmas Carol

Ralph da Costa Nunez: President, Institute For Children, Poverty & Homelessness Posted: December 16, 2010 12:00 PM


Welfare as we knew it was dead. That must be distinctly understood or nothing good can come of the story I am going to relate. The register of its burial was signed by elected officials and witnessed by its chief mourner: a senator from New York. Such was the case over 14 years ago when welfare reform ended the 70-year-old entitlement programs guaranteeing poor children and their families protection from destitution. But today, a century and a half after Dickens’ classic novel A Christmas Carol, a new version is beginning to unfold. It is the story of welfare past, present, and future. It is the tale of a poverty yet to come.

Welfare past began with good intentions. Conceived in the 1930s, it provided young, single mothers with the means to raise their children. It kept families together. But, as time went on, bureaucrats who ran the system grew indifferent toward those in need, while recipients demanded more for less. Dependency flourished, ambition waned, self-esteem vanished, and a culture of poverty grew.

Then came reform with the promise of welfare present in 1996. Things would change. The dependent would become independent or be made to do so. Traditional family values were “in” and a lifetime of entitlement was “out.” Limits on government aid were set and an invisible hand was expected to improve life for all. In response, welfare rolls plummeted and reform was declared a success. Still, with the nation at full employment and the stock market roaring, something was wrong.

Across the land, the number of children entering foster care and families entering emergency shelters began to rise. Those lucky enough to find employment found their hourly wage was too meager to feed their families. Child care was promised, but never arrived. While critics questioned these trends, others replied. “Are there no shelters, no soup kitchens?” The answer, of course, was “yes,” but is that what we had in mind? Wasn’t welfare reform supposed to eliminate such need?

Enter welfare future and the Great Recession. If the events of the present go unchanged, the casualties of welfare reform will continue to mount. The gap between the rich and the poor will only grow wider–some will have more, but even more will have less. Foster care beds will fill, and shelters will grow. We will have tossed innocent children into a sea of Ignorance and Want.

But there is still time to alter this all. The lessons of welfare past and present have shown that neither entitlements nor punishments are viable solutions–simply demanding “values” and a “work ethic” is naïve. In order to permanently end dependency, we must abandon temporary fixes and give recipients an entitlement that lasts a lifetime: education. If we want families to become independent, they need to earn a viable living wage. To achieve that, they must complete school, and in order to do that, they need child care and transportation. And if we can guarantee them that, reform will succeed. By educating welfare recipients, we will gain a strong work force, responsible citizens, and healthier families. Most of all, we will have broken the cycle of dependency that has lasted over 70 years. But if things go unchanged, we will not be faced with saving a Tiny Tim, but rather tens of thousands of blameless children. And then, “God help us, every one!”


Dr. Nunez has served as President of the Institute For Children, Poverty & Homelessness since the organization’s founding. He has also served as President and CEO of Homes for the Homeless since 1987. Prior to ICPH, Dr. Nunez spent his entire career working in New York City and State government. He has also held a faculty position at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs for the past 30 years. Dr. Nunez holds a PhD in Political Science from Columbia University.

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