Curing Social Ills

Poor Support Poverty in the American Family

By David T. Ellwood

271 pp.

Basic Books, $19.95

WE might as well as say it up front, right at the beginning: welfare is bad, very bad. That's the confession which David Ellwood, a good liberal proponent of welfare reform, is forced to make at the outset of his blueprint for change, Poor Support: Poverty in the American Family.

Ellwood, who argues articulately and coherently for revamping the current American approaches to poverty, accepts the standard axiom of welfare--that everybody hates it--and he goes on to explain his reasons why. Welfare, as Ellwood reasons it, is the wrong set of remedies to a misidentified set of problems. It fails to address the causes of poverty, and it penalizes those poor Americans who come closest to embracing traditional values of work and value.

At the heart of the welfare dilemma, according to Ellwood, is that the system attempts to place a dollar value on complex social and economic factors. As he emphasizes again and again, you can't throw money at a problem and expect it to go away.

But Ellwood's cogent analysis--and his policy recommendations--go far deeper than the don't-throw-money-at-it truisms that have become commonplaces among critics of the welfare system. Ellwood, a professor of public policy at the Kennedy School and a key member of its Center for Health and Human Resources, proposes sensible and sensitive reforms to the current system.

In Poor Support, Ellwood outlines policy options for specific segments of the poor--the working poor with children and single mothers with families to support. And although the disabled, the elderly and people without children do not fall within the scope of the book, it is a comprehensive and analytically sound set of recommendations.

ELLWOOD would have the country move away from welfare to a system where everyone's right to work and earn a reasonable income is safeguarded. For the working poor--families where one or both parents work full time and still do not earn enough to pull them over the poverty line--Ellwood proposes four things: a government-subsidized medical insurance program that would provide poor people with medical coverage, an earned income tax credit, a system of transitional assistance of strictly limited duration that would replace welfare and food stamps, and a limited number of government jobs that would serve as a last resort for those unable to find work.

For single mothers, he advocates the same agenda of four programs, combined with a strictly-enforced system of child assistance that would provide security for poor children and more choices for their mothers. Ellwood cites damning numbers about that lack of child support currently paid in the U.S. and suggests that absent fathers be forced to accept some responsibility--by paying around 30 percent of their income for child support--for their families.

These policy proposals, which form the core of Poor Support, are rounded out by analytical discussions of the causes of poverty, both social and economic, and with some historical overview of the reasons for the current welfare morass.

Ellwood argues that a pure welfare system--in which poor people would be given specific amounts of money to compensate for their low income--is bound to continue to be intensely criticized because it goes against basic American values. Welfare isolates and degrades its recipients, while fostering distrust and animosity among the general public, he argues.

There are three welfare "conundrums" which Ellwood discerns in the current system. First, there is what he dubs the security-work conundrum, in which the demands of providing security for those whose earnings place them below the poverty line conflict with the desire to make those people self-sufficient workers. Then, there is the targeting-isolation conundrum, which contrasts the need to identify and aid specific groups of the poor with the problem of isolating and stigmatizing those same people.

And the final paradox of the current welfare system is what he terms the assistance-family structure conundrum. Much has been written about the break-up of the American family in the ghetto, and Ellwood argues that one of the structural problems inherent in the welfare system is that it may provide incentives for the dissolution of the nuclear family. Yet Ellwood in Poor Support is a sensitive critic, and he dismisses most of the conservative rhetoric about women "marrying" the welfare system instead of husbands.

ELLWOOD'S book provides a corrective to many of the current myths, liberal and conservative, about why welfare doesn't work. In particular, he pleads the case for understanding the poor as a part of mainstream American society, and not the ghettoized, isolated group that it is often perceived to be. Less than 10 percent of American poor live in the ghettos, as Ellwood reminds his readers.

Taken together, these "conundrums" mentioned over and over again in the book provide compelling evidence for far-reaching reform of the current welfare system. And Ellwood's blueprint for change seems a sensible place for Congress to start.