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Confronting the Conflict between Fact-Based Judgments and Moral Values

Robert Cherry is a Koppelman Professor of Economics at Brooklyn College and a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. His most recent book, Welfare Transformed: Universalizing Family Policies That Work, offers a range of strong suggestions for transforming successful welfare policies into universal family policies, from strengthening federal economic supports for working families to improving or community colleges. In the article below he reflects on the dichotomy between moral and fact-based judgments.

Having finally put to bed my book, Welfare Transformed: Universalizing Policies that Work, I have been enjoying the most leisurely summer in years, often finding myself watching reruns of “Judging Amy.” When I first watched it years ago, I admired the way it presented the tensions faced by professional women trying to balance motherhood, careers, and familial relations. This time, however, I was drawn to Tyne Daly’s character, Maxine Gray, and her resolve, as a social worker, in serving the best interests of the children and families she serves.

9780195183122.jpgAs helping professionals, social workers must guard against “blaming the victims” for their shortcomings when faced with difficult choices and limited resources. I was particularly touched by shows where Maxine tries to help well-meaning but wayward mothers rather than seize on opportunities to separate them from their children. I also studied the conflicts between Maxine and her more rationally-calculating boss, Sean Potter. Almost always, Maxine’s judgments proved to be correct.

My new focus, undoubtedly, reflected my own conflicts between being motivated by moral values, like Maxine, and the need to be “hardheaded” and “fact-based” like Potter when judging the impact of the 1996 welfare legislation on the lives of poor mothers and their children. This conflict arises sharply because many in the social work community reject my “hard-headed, fact-based” assessment that the legislation was a measured success and provides a foundation to build upon. They correctly note that the legislation, by ending welfare as an entitlement and instituting sanctions and time limits, fundamentally changed the way society met its responsibility to help those most in need: poor mothers and children. They fear that these policies will only reinforce negative stereotypes, providing yet another policy based on “blaming the victim.” Such critics are skeptical of evidence citing success when it seems at best to demonstrate that a modest number of families moved from poverty to near-poverty, a change that still does not eliminate the persistence of material deprivation they experience.

What has sustained my positive view in Welfare Transformed has been my belief that the “Make Work Pay” philosophy that underpinned the 1996 legislation has been a catalyst for important federal and state policy initiatives, initiatives that if universalized can aid millions of working mothers and their families, most of whom will never be welfare recipients. At the federal level, this involves emphasizing the importance of high employment policies and correcting some of the defects in the Earned Income Tax Credits that cause working poor mothers to gain limited benefits from wage increases since these credits (along with food stamps, housing, and childcare subsidies) are reduced. At the state level, we can learn from states that have moved to universalize pre-K and changed their unemployment compensation rules to better serve working mothers. We can also learn from states that have re-emphasized effective vocational training programs that enable mothers to avoid enrolling at for-profit propriety schools that ill serve them. We can even build on some of the relationship programs funding by Bush’s marriage promotion initiatives, using these funds to strengthen families by bolstering the employment potential of less-educated fathers.

These incremental successes and the larger lessons we can draw from them show that facts need not trump moral obligations. I think Maxine would approve of these policy recommendations, if not the analysis that underpins them.

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