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Michigan Welfare Reform has Long Since Begun

R&L: Many conservative leaders, including yourself, have referred to the “paradigm shift” that is occurring in the nation’s approach to welfare. What does that term mean to you?

Engler: “Paradigm shift” is a much better word than “reform” to describe the dramatic changes we see taking place in this nation’s thinking about welfare. No one defends the current welfare state anymore, which discourages mothers from marrying, encourages fathers to abandon their children, and puts no value on work and thrift.

The current broken system is the legacy of the so-called Great Society, which was in many ways a great mistake. After three decades’ experience with this social disaster, people are coming to realize that we cannot just reinvent government programs and expect our welfare system to be the best it can be. We also recognize the need to breathe new life into this nation’s many outstanding private charities that have traditionally played such a strong role in helping people in need. Government is good at setting up rules and mailing checks, but it cannot minister to the hearts, minds, and souls of those who are trying to improve their lives. And that, at bottom, is what this paradigm shift is about.

R&L: You have taken a national lead in welfare reform. How exactly do you propose to reverse decades of building up the welfare state and “to end welfare as we know it”?

Engler: Two things have to happen to deconstruct the welfare state as we know it. First, Washington must relinquish the money and power it has been hoarding and return them to the states. Second, the states must make welfare a two-way street; with aid comes the obligation to work. I’d like to elaborate on both of these points.

It wasn’t right that I and other governors who wanted reform had to go to Washington, hat in hand, and practically beg for federal waivers so that we could fix a broken system. That’s changing now. The new leadership on Capitol Hill seems to be aware that there’s such a thing as the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They understand that the states are not vassals of Washington, but have sovereign powers of their own.

I have been pushing hard for Congress to turn welfare reform over to the states. Just do it–no strings attached. Specifically, I am calling for collapsing over 330 programs into several block grants, so that states have the flexibility to implement the solutions that work best for them. There will be more accountability and better results at the state level than at the federal level. And by easing Washington off center stage, more aid will go to the people in need rather than to bureaucrats.

Second, aid must be a two-way street. You don’t get something for nothing. After all, work is the reality for most Americans. It’s not fair that some welfare recipients can sit at home better off than their neighbors who are hard at work just trying to make ends meet. That’s why, early in our first term, we reformed Aid to Families with Dependent Children by getting recipients to sign a Social Contract that committed them either to work, job training, or volunteer service for at least 20 hours a week.

Because of these reforms, Michigan now has one of the strongest welfare-to-work track records in the nation. Three of every four welfare parents have voluntarily participated in the Social Contract. One in four is working and earning income–which compares to one in ten nationwide. Some 55,000 cases have been closed because recipients got a job and are self-reliant. We are not satisfied. We want the numbers to be higher. But it’s a good start.

R&L: Considering the extent of welfare reform that is needed, how do you think the states can keep from making the same mistakes Washington has made?

Engler: Competition among the states will provide a powerful incentive to get welfare reform right. Governors and legislators will rise or fall based on their ability to implement good programs. They will be looking across state lines at who’s doing the best job reforming the system, turning lives around, and saving taxpayer money. The 50 states vying with one another, I think, will create what amounts to market forces that cannot exist in the centralized bureaucracy we have today.

Michigan, as you know, has been ahead of the curve. We have not been sitting around and waiting for others to pave the way. My administration has initiated reforms that have yielded encouraging results, and I’d offer the following guidelines to leaders in other states.

First, when thinking about how “to end welfare as we know it,” don’t set aside any sacred cows. It’s important to have the political courage to get rid of bad programs. One of my administration’s first decisions, back in 1991, was to scrap General Assistance to over 80,000 welfare recipients. The state faced a $1.8 billion deficit, and I decided that able-bodied adults without children shouldn’t be on the dole, but on a payroll. Many commentators said that such dramatic reform in the face of the powerful welfare lobby was tantamount to political suicide. But remember that during my 1994 campaign for re-election, not one of the four Democratic challengers called for the restoration of General Assistance.

Second, real welfare reform should save money. Because we’ve successfully moved people from welfare rolls to payrolls, we’ve saved the state and federal government more than $100 million in the last two years. The savings had little to do with the dramatic improvements in our state’s economy–although it obviously didn’t hurt that, last year, Michigan’s annual unemployment rate was below the nation’s for the first time since 1966. But the key is that recipients are overcoming their behavioral poverty. Because of the Social Contract, they’re out in the “real world” and acquiring the skills and experience needed to make it in today’s economy. If so-called reforms are not saving taxpayers’ money and not putting people to work, then they aren’t really reforms.

R&L: Please elaborate on your remarks to ABC news commentator David Brinkley when you warned that “Replacing liberal micromanagement with conservative micro-management would only be a slight improvement; it’s time for wholesale reform.”

Engler: Liberals would attach thousands of strings to reform, making the states mere puppets of Washington. If conservatives attached hundreds of strings, would we really be that much better off? Ultimately, there should be only one string attached–performance. Give states the power, and watch how our reforms perform.

As for the call for wholesale reform, look, after decades of trying to wage a “war on poverty,” the verdict is in: America is losing the war. The old model of Washington and big government trying to wage a war on poverty has been a miserable failure. Government has transferred some $5 trillion to the poor through means-tested welfare and ginned up hundreds of programs. But what does our nation have to show for this “domestic Vietnam”? We cannot even say that it’s been a stalemate. Tragically, Washington micromanagement helped stall what had been a 20-year decline in the poverty rate, and it actually worsened the plight of the poor by rewarding “behavioral poverty” with a slew of perverse incentives.

We’ve come to the point where members of both parties are openly talking about “the tragedy of American compassion,” as the University of Texas professor, Marvin Olasky, puts it. The present system says to welfare mothers: Don’t marry, don’t work, and don’t try to get out of public housing. The system says to young men: You don’t need to take responsibility for your children. That is not compassionate. The current system certainly isn’t in the best interest of the family. That’s why wholesale reform is urgently needed, reform that will strengthen families. Rather than imposing a top-down system of rules and regulations, Washington needs to free up the states to be the laboratories of democracy our Founders intended them to be.

R&L: Why was a centralized War on Poverty so flawed in the first place?

Engler: If twentieth-century history teaches anything, it’s that central planning cannot do certain things very well. Thoughtful conservatives have understood all along that big government cannot wage a war on poverty from inside the Beltway and expect to win it. Under the old system, when there was welfare but not a “welfare state,” a needy person went to family members, to the church, or to a local relief organization and asked for assistance. There was personal contact–and there were personal consequences.

Over the decades, the whole process has become more and more centralized and less and less personalized. Distant lawmakers and bureaucrats now determine who is “entitled” to welfare. It is a fait accompli with no reciprocal obligations on the part of the needy. The social stigma has given way to social services.

Conservatives know, and increasingly liberals are prone to agree, that for many poor people the problem is not just lack of money or social services. There is a behavioral dimension. This past winter, Marvin Olasky spent a few nights posing as a homeless person on Washington streets. Every shelter he visited gave him all the food and drink he could take. But nobody asked him how he became homeless, or what he might do to become self-reliant. And yet that is the real starting point for turning lives around.

R&L: Do you think that government at any level can effectively tackle the behavioral roots of poverty?

Engler: At the very least, government can take the Hippocratic oath and do no harm. It can create incentives that encourage people to act responsibly rather than irresponsibly. At its very best, it can provide the leadership needed to forge partnerships with, and in, the private sector.

We must be very clear not just about the explicit but the implicit signals our policies send. We must clear up any mixed messages and make it known that people will be held accountable for their behavior. In Michigan, our reforms are beginning to do that. I don’t sit in judgment and say, “This is a terrible thing you’ve done, and now we’ll exact some penalty.” But when somebody makes a bad decision, then comes to government and says, “Well, now you have to help me,” the equation changes. At that point the state has a right–indeed, it has an obligation–to say, “Wait a minute. There is something called reciprocity.”

Now, every reform I’ve mentioned involving government is important. But, ultimately, welfare reform must go beyond government and the political process. We want to free the power and money that have been held captive in Washington, not to hoard them in our state capitols or city halls, but ultimately to return responsibility to where it belongs–to civil society–to our families and neighborhoods, churches, and private charities.

R&L: To what extent do you foresee private charities and churches taking up the responsibility to provide for the needy?

Engler: In my 1995 State of the State Address, I noted how inspired I’d been by recent conversations with religious leaders from around the state. Father Sirico has taken a national lead in arguing for churches to reassert their traditional responsibility toward the poor. And pastors like Eddie Edwards and Edgar Vann have offered to come together to bring the full moral authority of the religious community to bear on the challenges our families and neighborhoods face. I have agreed to convene a meeting of clergy to search for solutions. This partnership is promising because many churches, synagogues, and mosques anchor our neighborhoods at risk. Their leaders have the trust that’s so desperately needed.

So there’s reason for optimism. There’s a growing recognition of the limits of government. Government cannot be a mom or dad. It cannot raise our children. It cannot inspire people to overcome their behavioral poverty. Political problems have political solutions–and moral problems have moral solutions. The clergy I’ve spoken with recognize that. Their churches have a critically important role in the welfare debate, and they are rising to the challenge.

R&L: In the mainstream media, you have been called a “reluctant moralist.” How does your faith inform your thinking about welfare reform?

Engler: I’ve been a Catholic all my life. The faith has much to say about how best to deal with the problem of poverty, and I have profited from its teachings. When I speak to Catholic audiences, I often refer to the principle of subsidiarity. Pope Pius XI said–I paraphrase–that it is unjust to turn over to big government those functions and services that can and should be performed by smaller, more local units of government. And it is unjust to turn over to government what can be performed by those institutions in civil society–churches, service clubs, and private charities–which historically have served those in need.

Subsidiarity involves more than persuading Washington to return power to the states. As Father Neuhaus put it in his recent book, Doing Well and Doing Good, “The notion of devolving or decentralizing state functions assumes that the functions belong to the state in the first place. Subsidiarity is based on exactly the opposite assumption.” That is the key point. And that is why I have reached out to volunteer organizations like the Salvation Army and made them partners in our efforts to help the homeless.

Another insight the faith has given me concerns justice. We always hear about distributive justice–which is what society owes the individual. But Catholic social teaching also emphasizes the flip-side–contributive justice–which deals with what the individual owes society. This teaching is reflected in our highly successful Social Contract, which urges recipients to work, undertake job training, or perform volunteer service for at least 20 hours a week in exchange for benefits.

R&L: To what extent do you think the Catholic principle of subsidiarity is compatible with the American political tradition?

Engler: They dovetail marvelously. The principle of subsidiarity is wholly consistent with American federalism as the majority of our Founders understood federalism. You’ll recall Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, in which he said: “Still one thing more fellow-citizens–a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

Lincoln reaffirmed this principle when he said: “In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.”

So there is a convergence of the best in America’s political tradition and in Catholic social teaching, and this convergence offers extremely useful guidelines when thinking about poverty.