William Julius Wilson, the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University, delivered the Honors Convocation to a packed Memorial Chapel at 11:10 on Tuesday. Before Wilson delivered his address, President Warch presented him with an honorary degree, doctor of humane letters, in recognition for his life-long devotion to scholarship and social change.Wilson’s address dealt with the monumental 1996 Welfare Reform Act, passed under President Clinton’s administration.
Wilson cited an unprecedented concordance of opinion between liberals and conservatives during what Wilson called “the period of rising inequality.” He suggested that American attitudes towards welfare are predicated on judgments about “the moral fabric of individuals”; that is, that individual attitudes toward employment govern their employment status and ultimately whether they stay on welfare or not.
According to Wilson, this is a uniquely American idea. He said that European nations are far more likely to see the welfare state as a social, rather than individual, phenomenon. Additionally, Wilson cited a number of studies, particularly studies of recipients of the federal program Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Wilson suggested that these studies indicate that welfare is not the product of individual attitudes, but of complex accumulation of social pressures brought to bear on the individual.
Wilson presented an analysis of state and federal welfare laws, suggesting that the laws themselves tended to perpetuate dependency rather than discourage it. In particular, he cited one study that showed that people who leave welfare for fulltime employment in low wage jobs would actually lose $317 dollars in total income and housing and health benefits each month by leaving the program.
Wilson was quick to acknowledge the successes of the Welfare Reform Act, including surpluses in some states and the reduction of the welfare roles. He was equally quick, however, to point to the fact that this success coincided with unprecedented economic growth and that when the economy inevitably slowed, as he said it appears to be doing now, many successes could disappear as a result.
Wilson concluded that we must not fail to think critically about welfare reform and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act in particular.