Getting Well Off Welfare

Poverty pimps, like nature, abhor a vacuum.

THE NATIONAL GOVERNORS' conference passed this week without any unbecoming public fuss about the details of welfare reform as it will be practiced by the various states. The president was made to promise some additional assistance for a small class of legal immigrants cut out of the system, but all in all the nervous anticipation was held nicely in check, and by the end Clinton could not help remarking how much he likes all those Republican governors out there.

Welfare devolution is going to be a nightmare of untold proportions both organizationally and in its human toll. But a couple of things are very clear in broad terms. First, the "outsourcing," or privatizing, of many previously public administrative services to for-profit and non-profit poverty pimps is going to be an integral part of state and municipal systems. A glimpse of just how lucrative this stands to be can be had by looking at the companies now queuing up for a piece of the action: among them Lockheed Martin, Electronic Data Systems, the Arthur Andersen accounting gang, Unisys, and IBM. As for the nonprofits, their muddy and often pernicious role in the system will only get muddier and more pernicious. In New York, to cite one case where there is already a bit of history, United Way has been a prominent player since 1993 in the city's welfare reform efforts, and has betrayed the interests of the poor at every turn. Only after public employee unions threatened to boycott UW payroll deduction programs did United Way consultants back off their recommendations regarding benefit cuts and time limits.

Second, the very nature of workfare is going to help depress real wages still further on those lesser rungs of the economic ladder where the workfare jobs happen to exist: Employers will keep the pay as low as legally permissible, and anyone who complains will be offered the prospect of his or her replacement by a publicly subsidized workfare recipient. In that respect welfare reform is a kind of Taft-Hartley Act for the '90s. As if business needed another weapon.

A FRIEND RECENTLY sent me an excerpt from Richard Wright's 1955 essay "The Color Curtain" that seemed chillingly apropos for a post-civil rights, post-safety net America. The passage begins with the story of an encounter at the Indonesian Ministry of Information, where Wright, as a dark-skinned man covering a conference on Asian/African nations, received his press card immediately while a white American reporter was made to wait. "I was a member of the master race!" he wrote; "Well, there it was... I'm not proud of it. It took no intelligence, no courage; in the situation that obtained, it was the easiest thing to do. It was racism." And then this follows (ellipses in original):

"Will Asians and Africans, being as human as white men, take over this vicious pattern of identification when they become, as they will, masters of this earth? Racism is an evil thing and breeds its own kind. Yet it would be truly human if the Asians and Africans did, for they have much greater cause for doing so than the white man ever had. They would be acting out of a four-hundred-year tradition of racial conditioning... After all, the colored races never did anything to the white races to call down upon their heads the centuries of brutality and exploitation that the whites have meted out to them. But the most important point is: Can the colored races, for the most part uneducated and filled with fear, forget so quickly the racist deeds of the white races as they strive to free themselves from the lingering vestiges of racial subjugation? I'm not advocating racism or even trying to justify it; racism is a loathsome thing. I'm just trying to explain how easy it is, and with what justification the colored races can and will, to some extent--depending upon how ignorant and emotionally wrought up the whites have kept them--practice racism, a racism that they have been taught too bitterly and too well.

"It would be a naive and child-like white Westerner who, seeing the dreadful racist peril now confronting him, would say: 'But I don't feel like that any more. I'm perfectly willing for racism to stop. I'll support any legislation to eradicate racism.' But, unfortunately, life is not that simple. Contrite words cannot now stop profound processes which white men set in motion on this earth some four hundred years ago; four hundred years is a long time... time enough for habits, reactions, to be converted into culture, tradition, into a raison d'etre for millions...

"In the future there will be white men who will look into black and yellow and brown faces, and they will say to themselves: 'I wish to God that those faces were educated, that they had lived lives as secure and serene as mine; then I would be able to talk to them, to reason with them...' But then it would be too late."

ON THE SAME note, I ran across this item regarding Hillary Clinton's little-noted State of the Union preview:

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