Let's Legalize Drugs

The Truth and Consequences of Welfare Reform

Let's Legalize Drugs

The Truth and Consequences of Welfare Reform

Let's Legalize Drugs
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Nov. 17 2004 3:09 PM

The Truth and Consequences of Welfare Reform


Dear Ron and Jonah,

Like Ron, I'm impressed at DeParle's ability to be embraced by the establishment left even as he abandons and undermines its decades-old principles and themes. He's like Hillary in that respect! Where are the PC police condemning him for supporting, between hard covers, the 1996 Gingrichite welfare reform that ended the welfare entitlement, and that they righteously opposed? Why isn't DeParle accused of "blaming the victim" for documenting Angie's, Opal's, and Jewell's screw-ups and the various pimps and drug dealers they allow into their lives? (When two Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporters wrote a similarly honest and gripping account several years ago, if I recall correctly, they were hounded mercilessly.)


The answer lies partly in DeParle's obvious empathy and respect for his subjects. It's partly his willingness to support expensive government interventions—in talking to liberal groups I've found that nothing defuses their hostility like support for spending billions, even if you want to spend those billions in conservative ways. It's partly that DeParle's a slick customer, and partly that there's no arguing with his reporting. But mainly, I think, it's because the establishment left, with a few holdouts, has now realized it was wrong about welfare reform, and it realizes that everybody else realizes it was wrong. A few years ago, a respectable left position would be that Opal Caples was entitled to her welfare check even if she was a drug addict—maybe especially if she was a drug addict, since addiction would constitute a disability. Now Jonah and DeParle both condemn Wisconsin's W-2 program for failing to cut off her check quickly enough. That's progress. (I dissent, though, from Jonah's description of Opal as one of the "casualties" of reform. According to DeParle, Opal began smoking crack in the early '90s, long before she was exposed to Wisconsin's mid-decade welfare changes. Maybe a better system of social work could have saved her. But crack is crack.)

It may be progress, too, when all three of us agree that encouraging "married-couple black families"—and more broadly doing something about the "hundreds of thousands if not millions of examples of African-American families where the females make it and the men go astray," as Jonah brutally puts it—is at least one of the main post-reform challenges, if not the main challenge. I seem to be the only dialoguer, though, who holds out substantial hope that reform itself (and the impressive increase in female employment it produced) has set in motion a dynamic that might do the job. As Ron notes, the early statistics do not "very strongly" encourage this hope (though the decades-long rise in black illegitimacy that Sen. Moynihan publicized seems to have been stopped, which isn't nothing). You certainly don't get much of this hope reading DeParle's book. True, he finds one hero—Ken Thigpen, the ex-pimp who lives with Jewell—who is trying to do the right thing. But he isn't getting much support.

My reason for hope overlaps my main critique of the book: DeParle's focus is too narrow. He ignores what might be called "neighborhood effects"—the potential effect, as Ron puts it, of Ken being surrounded by other couples who are married, who are also working in legitimate jobs and not dealing drugs (identified by Jewell, Jonah notes, as "every black man's job"). If the "revolution we need" in the inner cities happens, it will be because of a decades-long ecological process, in which more mothers work, and a few more marry fathers with legitimate jobs, which encourages a few more boys to grow up to become fathers with legitimate jobs, etc. At some future date a "tipping point" might be reached at which these changes start coming with startling rapidity (as happened in New York City with the past decade's decline in crime).

That DeParle doesn't tell us much about any positive changes that might be happening in Angie and Jewell's neighborhood—and the decisions made by younger men and women who now never go on welfare—doesn't mean positive changes aren't happening. According to an article Ron has written elsewhere:

Separate studies of the 1990 and 2000 census conducted by Paul Jargowsky of the University of Texas found that the number of people living in high-poverty neighborhoods declined by about one-quarter (or 2.5 million people) during the 1990s. These unexpected declines were described by Jargowsky as stunning.

If fewer children grow up in high-poverty neighborhoods, that almost certainly means fewer children will discover a new friend and, like Angie's daughter, have that new friend be a prostitute who "boasted that an evening's work could bring her $1,000." The idea of the "role model," Christopher Hitchens argues, is a dreary middlebrow cliché. Unfortunately, it also seems to be how human beings learn.

What policies might help establish a positive ecological dynamic? I'm skeptical of most of the items on Jonah's list. "Investing" in early childhood education and reducing class size might help, but the fate of public schools is mainly tied up in the success or failure of President Bush's "No-Child-Left-Behind" attempt to force our union-dominated educational bureaucracy to meet specified outcome goals (on standardized tests). If Bush's perestroika fails, I see no alternative to some choice-based system, at least for bad inner city schools. But I'm with Jonah on raising the minimum wage, which would immediately give hard-working men like Ken more respect (and which wouldn't require taxes or deficits). A minimum wage hike would cost jobs, but it would be worth it for the message it would send. I also agree that the problem of latchkey children—pervasive in the lives of DeParle's subjects, but also a problem in more affluent neighborhoods—needs to be addressed. That will require tax money.

If we want to do something dramatic to steer inner-city men onto a better path, though, there is one policy solution we haven't discussed: drug legalization. Legalizing drugs might well be a disaster for suburban kids who are not now exposed to them. But it's hard to see how it could make drugs any more readily available in the ghetto than they already are—and it would take the big money out of the drug dealing business. You want African-American boys to grow up in neighborhoods in which workers, and not pushers, are the ones with the "dust"? We know how to do that! The chances of legalization, as former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke discovered, are remote—especially given the strident opposition of black churches. But the idea deserves more consideration than it's gotten. There were previously two big, harmful sources of ghetto-economy GNP—welfare (for women) and drug-dealing (for men). We've ended the welfare. Now we wonder what we can do for the men!


Jonah Edelman, Ph.D, is executive director of Stand for Children, a citizen voice for children with affiliates in four states. He lives in Portland, Ore. Ron Haskins is a senior fellow in the economic studies program at the Brookings Institution and senior consultant at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore. Mickey Kaus, a Slate contributor, is author of The End of Equality.