Is There Any Reason to Think This Time Will Be Different?
A Commentary by Michael Barone
When public policies have produced disastrous results, and when alternative policies have resulted in immediate, seemingly miraculous improvement, why would anyone want to go back to the earlier policies? Is there any reason to suppose that this time will be different?
Not that I can see. The earlier policies -- a pullback from active policing and certain punishment, an open-handed welfare system providing income for single mothers -- were put in place in the 1960s, within living memory of some of us. The intentions were good. It was a time of high hopefulness that America's shameful history of racial discrimination and mistreatment were over.
The public accommodations and employment sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, controversial when passed, were more successful than even their most enthusiastic advocates dared to expect. The justifiably draconian measures of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 resulted almost immediately in full enfranchisement of black Americans.
Some sought more advances. As violent crime rates rose alarmingly among the blacks who had been streaming into cities for 25 years, prison populations actually declined, and police in major cities were reined in. As national unemployment rates fell, births to unwed mothers and welfare dependency rose. In the decade from 1965 to 1975, violent crime and welfare dependency, both heavily concentrated among blacks, nearly tripled -- tripled.
For two more decades, crime and welfare dependency remained at the same high levels, sometimes zooming higher. Only with the work-required welfare reform of Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and the active policing pioneered by Rudy Giuliani in New York in the 1990s did the numbers come sharply down.
Left behind were central-city neighborhoods with burnt-out houses and empty lots; empty and bombed-out storefronts; downtowns and entertainment districts abandoned and boarded up.
Now it looks like we're starting the same cycle again. The death of a suspect in Minneapolis last May led to a resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests "mostly peaceful" in cities across the country ("mostly peaceful" means "often violent") and an even sharper rise in murders than after the BLM movement emerged following the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri incident.
Murders were up about 30% in 2020, far above the previous record of a 13% increase in 1968. Police departments are being defunded, effective crime-stopping procedures banned, criminal penalties reduced and low-dollar burglaries left unprosecuted.
We know where such policies led before. Is there any reason this time will be different?
Soft-on-crime policies were exacerbated by a surge in the number of children raised without fathers by mothers on welfare in the decades from 1965 to 1995. Reform, first by Thompson in Wisconsin and then by Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton in the 1996 welfare bill, required mothers to work.
Social workers' focus was changed from handing out more checks to helping moms get and hold jobs. The results: Welfare rolls plummeted; teen births plunged; kids raised by working moms did better in school and in life.
Liberals have tried to stealthily roll back the reforms. They've been joined by some cultural conservatives, worried about population decline and eager to encourage potential parents with modest educational credentials and skills.
These include Sen. Mitt Romney, who supports a child allowance that is fully refundable -- which is to say that government will send a check to parents, married or unmarried, who have no income tax liability to offset. His and other proposals have a high cutoff, so affluent parents wouldn't get anything.
Conservative supporters worry about the nation's birth rates, sharply down since the 2007-08 financial crisis and even lower in 2020, and point out that many young people tell pollsters they'd like more children than they end up having. The fear is that America would end up like Japan, with an elderly population, a stagnant economy and stunted innovation.
A version of this, limited to one year, has been inserted in the "COVID relief" bill of President Joe Biden's administration. A single parent with two kids, working or not, could qualify for $7,200 a year plus $6,400 in food stamps. Advocates argue recipients would keep working because benefits wouldn't be reduced by wages earned.
Mickey Kaus, renegade liberal blogger, argues that that's nonsense. "(A) large subset of recipients will go from one worker to zero workers." That means "millions of kids growing up in fatherless homes, where nobody goes into the labor force, where the mainstream world of employment is a foreign country."
Past experience says he's right and that, as with high crime, the people most hurt will be black Americans. I can't see any reason this time will be different, and I look ahead with dread.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.
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