The Duty of Hype!
Introducing the Snipe-O-Meter.
Posted Saturday, July 31, 1999
On July 22, Texas Gov. George W. Bush gave the first major policy address of his presidential campaign. The speech, "The Duty of Hope," outlined Bush's plan to "fight a very different war against poverty and hopelessness" by funding the work of "faith-based" charitable organizations. In the interests of clarifying the issues posed by Bush's proposal, Kausfiles introduces a new feature, the Snipe-O-Meter, offering exegetical annotations of the Bush text. Bush's statements appear in boldface, followed by context and perspective from the Kausfiles staff:
"The American Dream is so vivid - but too many feel: The dream is not meant for me. Children abandoned by fathers. Children captured by addiction and condemned to schools that do not teach and will not change. Young mothers without self-respect or education. ... [T]he places where these problems are concentrated -- from North Central Philadelphia to South Central Los Angeles -- have become the ruins of communities." Hmmm. North Central Philly, South Central L.A. -- Bush isn't talking about the poor whom ye always have with you. He's talking about the peculiar American tragedy of inner-city ghettos. The "underclass," for short.
"[T]hese are not strangers, they are citizens, Americans, our brothers and sisters. ... Often when a life is broken, it can only be rebuilt by another caring, concerned human being. Someone whose actions say 'I love you, I believe in you, I'm in your corner.'" Bush's "compassionate conservatism" has been criticized in this space for "carrying the condescending implication of charity." Yet here Bush drops his previous superior-sounding talk (e.g. "a nation where the strong are just and the weak are valued") and tries for an egalitarian, AA-type vibe -- 'I love you, man!' That Bush is a sobered-up heavy-drinker gives this approach some plausibility. Still, it won't work. Alcoholics Anonymous is egalitarian in that everyone in it shares the same problem. But Bush is describing a world in which some people's lives are considered "broken," and they are saved by other people -- non-broken, "caring, concerned" people (with "mercy in our judgment"). The relationship is inherently inegalitarian. This is true whether or not the word "compassion" itself implies pity or, as Gertrude Himmelfarb argued in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, mere "'fellow feeling' for the 'sorrows' of others."
"[W]e must also be rich in ideals -- rich in justice and compassion and family love and moral courage. ... Our national character shines in our compassion. ... we can, in our imperfect way, rise now and again to the example of St. Francis." Himmelfarb also claimed that Bush's brand of compassion is "truly directed to the good of others rather than the satisfaction of oneself." She must have missed these passages, which exude more than a little self-satisfaction.
"In every instance where my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations, charities, and community groups ... It is the next, bold step of welfare reform." No, it's not. The next step of welfare reform is figuring out what to do when millions of single mothers on "temporary" relief fail to find private-sector jobs and bump up against their state-set time limits. There are three traditional options: 1) Let them stay on the dole; 2) Cut them off; or 3) offer them public, last-resort "workfare" jobs. The right answer is Option 3, precisely because it gives those on welfare a chance to earn their support, with dignity, before they are consigned, along with the other "broken" people, to the redemptive mercies of their betters. Not coincidentally, the one state that has clearly chosen Option 3, Wisconsin, has the nation's most successful welfare reform. Unfortunately, many Republicans get cold feet about public "workfare" jobs, which are expensive and smack of big government. If Bush really sees "faith-based organizations" as the core of his welfare reform, it suggests that he, too, may backing off the workfare solution. What happens when recipients hit the time limits? Let the faith-based organizations handle it! Alas, one thing faith-based groups aren't very good at is rigorously requiring work. (And it's not encouraging that Bush's Texas welfare reform - click here for a description -- exempts new unwed mothers from work obligations for four years, a huge loophole that makes for an unusually lax work requirement. In Wisconsin, a new mother gets 12 weeks.)
"Real change in our culture comes from the bottom up, not the top down. It gathers the momentum of a million committed hearts." OK, what's the best way to achieve Bush's stated goal of changing the culture of the ghettos? By expanding "mentoring" programs, which Bush admits now only cover "3 percent of America's 13.6 million at-risk children?" Or by following through on transforming the welfare system, which has been the material basis (as a Marxist might put it) of "underclass" culture, and which still sustains some 7 million recipients in broken homes at any one time? The answer seems obvious to anyone with a reasonably hard head. If you require time-limited welfare mothers to work - something that's done, yes, from the top down -- you affect virtually all of ghetto life, from whether women choose to have children out of wedlock (they can no longer count on welfare checks to sustain them), to whether they have an incentive to choose long-term breadwinners as fathers for their children, to whether men have an incentive to become long-term breadwinners. Promote "mentoring" and ... well, you might get yourself elected president.
Newt Gingrich has now filed for divorce. But you read about this development first right here!
Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.