We now have the results of a huge experiment in human nature that teaches a critical lesson about social progress. The lesson emerges from the 1996 welfare reform, the mandated end to bilingual education in California and seven years of school reform in Texas. It is this: if you demand more of people–if you make them more responsible for their own behavior–you will get more from them. Their lives will improve.
What people do for themselves is more lasting and important than what others do for them. This is merely common sense, but it runs counter to the reigning liberal thinking that continues to underpin many social programs. The prevailing assumption has been that the poor are victims who need to be helped. The trouble with this high-profile compassion is that it often ends up advertising the moral superiority of the compassion-givers more than aiding the intended recipients.
Given this thinking, it was hardly surprising that congressional passage of “welfare reform” four years ago prompted loud predictions of social calamity. Families would be thrown out onto the street. Hunger and malnutrition would increase. Child abuse would rise. (The new welfare law encouraged states to move recipients into jobs and set limits–generally no more than five years–on how long most families could remain on welfare.)
The calamity didn’t happen. As is now well known, welfare rolls have dropped by more than half from their historical peak of more than 5 million families in early 1994. Of course, there are qualifications. The booming economy explains part of the decline. Many former welfare recipients still depend on government benefits (food stamps, Medicaid) to get by. And many of those who have left welfare remain poor and struggle with personal problems–drugs, broken relationships–that keep them down.
But on balance, lives have improved. Perhaps 50 to 60 percent of former welfare recipients have jobs, report Douglas Besharov and Peter Germanis of the Welfare Reform Academy at the University of Maryland. “There is no evidence [of] substantial increases in homelessness [or of] child abuse and neglect,” they write in Public Interest magazine. People without jobs often rely on family and friends for support and shelter. People with jobs often surprise themselves, acquiring skills and self-esteem. In some state surveys, 60 to 80 percent of former welfare recipients report that life has gotten better or is no worse than under welfare.
Next, examine California’s Proposition 227. Passed in June 1998 by a 61 to 39 percent margin, it banned bilingual education in the state’s schools. Educators widely opposed it; so did President Clinton. Prophecies of doom were widespread. Clinton said it would condemn immigrant children to “intellectual purgatory.” The head of the San Francisco School Board said that “this would set our students back 30 years.”
What happened? Test scores of children from Spanish-speaking families didn’t drop. They rose. In second grade, average reading scores of students with limited English ability have jumped in the past two years from the 19th percentile nationally to the 28th percentile. In math, the same students went from the 27th to the 41st percentile, according to The New York Times.
“I thought it would hurt kids,” Ken Noonan, superintendent of schools in Oceanside, a city north of San Diego, told the Times. Thirty years ago he helped found the California Association of Bilingual Educators. “The exact reverse occurred, totally unexpected by me,” he said. “The kids began to learn–not pick up, but learn–formal English, oral and written, far more quickly than I ever thought they would.”
Finally, there’s Texas. School reform began in 1993 under Democratic Gov. Ann Richards and continued after George W. Bush’s election in 1994. It requires students to pass an exam–called the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills–before graduating. From 1994 to 1998, the proportion of students passing the exam rose from 53 to 78 percent. Among blacks, the passage rate increased from 31 to 63 percent; among Hispanics, from 39 to 70 percent.
Some scholars and newspaper reports have tried to discredit the gains–probably because they reflect well on Bush. The attacks don’t wash. In the magazine City Journal, Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute shows that the two main criticisms are unfounded: that cheating and a progressive easing of the tests account for the gains (other standardized tests show similar, though smaller, increases), and that higher dropout rates raised the scores because the worst students left (by Greene’s estimates, dropout rates–though still high–have declined). A recent Rand Corporation study of standardized test scores–adjusted bystudents’ economic and social background–found that Texas students had the largest gains of any state. Students are more focused, and teachers are held “accountable,” argues Greene.
Which brings us back to the lesson.
All advanced societies, including ours, strive to protect the vulnerable and uplift the downtrodden. The problem is to discriminate between those who truly require help and those who can, with some prodding and perhaps assistance, do for themselves. This is rarely an easy or obvious call. But it is often made more difficult by the needs–psychological, political and even economic–of the people who purport to speak on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged. The impulse is not to make too many demands, because that would seem insensitive and cruel. Worse, if victims stop being victims, what would there be left to do?
The effect is to subvert personal responsibility. We encourage this when we assign the moral high ground to those who simply shout the loudest for the downtrodden. We give more moral points for rhetoric than results. Never mind that the rhetoric–by emphasizing how much people need help and minimizing their capacity for self-help–often perpetuates the problems that are supposedly under attack.