Getting it right

It’s the 10th anniversary of welfare reform, which has succeeded remarkably in reducing poverty, checking the rise of babies born out of wedlock, getting people off welfare and into jobs and something else, too: showing that, on some issues at any rate, the public can be twice as smart as supposedly expert intellectuals.

Go back to 1996 when President Clinton finally came around to signing a reform bill after two vetoes, and examine the public opinion polls. You find from one think-tank paper that 90 percent of the public thought welfare recipients should work for what they receive, and 84 percent agreed that the government was encouraging disastrous behavior by increasing welfare checks for additional babies born without a husband in the home.

The public got it that the system encouraged welfare recipients in an enervating, prolonged dependence on government and fostered an illegitimacy rate that was pushing the poverty rate ever higher. Turn now to the leftist shouters, and look at what they said about a law that would limit welfare payments to five years, establish work requirements and hand over the welfare money as block grants to states, which would be responsible for administration.

Academics and their fawning followers in editorial-writing circles screeched that doing this thing was mean-spirited and ignorant, while Marion Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund was among those explaining why: Millions of children would be slammed into poverty. Her husband, Peter Edelman, resigned from a welfare advisory role in the Clinton administration, worrying about increases in malnutrition, infant mortality and drug abuse. Leftist D.C. think tanks did little to nothing to contain their own speculative fury as they conjured up visions of small children thrown into misery beyond the powers of Dickensian description.

Yet here we are a decade later, and not only has the worst failed to happen, but blessings are bursting out all over. As a paper on all of this by the Heritage Foundation points out, childhood poverty has dropped by 1.6 million since 1995, with the decline being greatest among black children. Employment of single mothers has increased dramatically, their poverty rate has dived deeply downwards and welfare caseloads have been halved.

If here and there you can find instances where all is not what you would hope for _ and you can _ those instances are a fraction of the misfortune obtaining prior to reform.

How is it, then, that the public trumped the experts on this question? Of course, they did not trump all of them _ the predictions of the experts at Heritage, for instance, were pretty much on target. The experts who were wrong were mostly liberals who not infrequently think good intentions a substitute for thought and who dodge the data that does not appear to confer moral superiority on their attitudes.

The public, meanwhile, can be more insightful than some would suppose. In a book called “The Rational Public,” I learned through reviews, two social scientists exhaustively examined American views on issues from the 1930s to the 1990s and concluded that collective public opinion is for the most part logically consistent, informed by well-anchored values and responsive to new information and solid argumentation.

It doesn’t follow that we should therefore have government by public opinion polls _ for one reason, vast numbers of Americans simply don’t pay attention to a great many political particulars and can change their minds on policies when leaders actually lead. I believe legislators charged with devoting themselves to study of the issues should rely on their own best judgments, and I believe, too, that expertise _ at least the unbiased kind _ is very often mandatory: If I am trying to send a rocket to the moon, my need is for engineers, mathematicians and physicists, not public opinion surveys.

But the public is by and large reasonable, decent, high-minded and non-ideological, and is especially trustworthy, it seems to me, when the issue involves questions of human nature and social circumstances that confront most of us in our own daily lives. If public wisdom were seldom seen, we could not have democracy, and we would not have had welfare reform that has helped the poor, not hurt them as the leftist intellectuals contended it would.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)