At Issue: Shaping the Debate on Welfare Reform
By Douglas J. Besharov
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post, August 11, 1996.
This is the first of an occasional series of reading lists tied to
issues in the news.
THIS LIST demonstrates, once again, that ideas have consequences.
All the main elements of the new welfare law -- requiring work for benefits,
time-limiting benefits, discouraging unwed parenthood and devolving power and
responsibility back to the states -- have their roots in an unfolding
intellectual and political debate that has lasted more than 30 years.
Here are 16 books that have helped shape that debate and that will
help you decide what to think about the new law -- and what it may or may not
Tally's Corner: A Study of Negro Streetcorner Men, by Elliott
Liebow (Little, Brown, 1967). A richly textured description of life among
inner-city poor blacks in the early 1960s, told from the vantage point of a
group of often-unemployed black men who hung around a street corner in
StreetWise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community, by
Elijah Anderson (University of Chicago Press, 1990). Twenty-three years after
the men gathered at Tally's Corner, an unflinching depiction of male behaviors
in neighborhoods now racked by drugs, crime, violence and a pervasive sense of
There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in
the Other America, by Alex Kotlowitz (Doubleday, 1991). Life in a Chicago public
housing project as seen by the children: unemployment and idleness among adults,
the almost complete absence of governmental authority, indiscriminate and often
senseless violence (and death) and a pervasive resignation that things won't get
better -- no matter how hard a person strives.
Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America, by Leon Dash
(Basic Books, forthcoming). The excruciating realities of one welfare mother's
journey through teen pregnancy, drug abuse, crime and death from AIDS. Based on
Dash's Pulitzer Prize-winning series for The Washington Post.
Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, by Charles Murray
(Basic Books, 1984). A fusillade against the Great Society, arguing that it not
only failed to help the poor but often made things worse.
Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship, by
Lawrence M. Mead (Free Press, 1986). Mead concludes that the problem is the
permissiveness of the welfare state, not its size. Welfare recipients, for
example, should be required to work in return for their benefits.
The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and
Public Policy, by William Julius Wilson (University of Chicago, 1987). Argues
that the underclass was not created by welfare but by the decline in
well-paying, blue-collar jobs.
Welfare Realities: From Rhetoric to Reform, by Mary Jo Bane and
David T. Ellwood (Harvard, 1994). An easily read volume by two senior Clinton
advisers that contains the single best summary of the key empirical research on
welfare dependency, much of it their own.
The Work Alternative: Welfare Reform and the Realities of the Job
Market, edited by Demetra Smith Nightingale and Robert H. Haveman (Urban
Institute Press, 1995). A group of welfare experts (mostly liberals) study
Clinton's original welfare plan -- based on subsidizing entry into the labor
force -- and conclude that it wouldn't work.
The Tragedy of American Compassion, by Marvin Olasky (Regnery
Gateway, 1992). A brilliant recounting of non-governmental charity to the poor,
from colonial times to the present.
The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Welfare, by Michael B. Katz
(Pantheon, 1989). In a nation as rich as the U.S., poverty exists because of a
political decision not to redistribute more wealth to the less fortunate.
Tyranny of Kindness: Dismantling the Welfare System to End Poverty
in America, by Theresa Funiciello (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993). A former
recipient's angry complaint that the anti-poverty industry is run for the
benefit of its middle-class professionals, not the single mothers struggling to
get by on paltry welfare payments.
The Forgotten Americans: Thirty Million Working Poor in the Land
of Opportunity, by John E. Schwartz and Thomas J. Volgy (Norton, 1992). The
attention lavished on welfare recipients obscures the high levels of material
hardship suffered by the working poor, who struggle to make ends meet with
little or no governmental assistance.
Reviving the American Dream: The Economy, the States and the
Federal Government, by Alice M. Rivlin (Brookings, 1992). A prominent Democrat's
argument for devolution and block grants made before she became Bill Clinton's
The Homeless, by Christopher Jencks (Harvard, 1994). A gem of a
study that dissects what is known about homelessness, its causes and its
The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, by William J. Bennett
(Touchstone, 1994). Better to call this the index of depressing cultural
indicators because it documents a decline of dispiriting proportions --
involving crime, family breakdown, teen pregnancy, education and popular
Overview of Entitlement Programs (the Green Book), by the House
Ways and Means Committee (Government Printing Office, 1993). Since 1980, the
government publication with the definitive summary of federal welfare programs:
1,299 mind-numbing pages of program descriptions and statistics. Available on
the Worldwide Web at http://aspe.os.dhhs.gov/GB/gbpage.htm.
Douglas J. Besharov is a resident scholar at the American
Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and a visiting professor at the
University of Maryland.
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