Month: <span>July 2019</span>


The 2019 Oregon Legislative Assembly did something hardly any, if any at all, of its predecessors did: It become famous for not meeting.

That’s too bad, in some ways, because this year’s session was one of Oregon’s most remarkable for what it actually did. The great interregnum at the end, the period when the Senate could not meet for lack of quorum because of the walkout of its Republican members, was only the holiday-season fireworks wrapping up a lot of other noteworthy activity that probably got far less attention across most of the state.

That legislative Republicans would have such an impact – especially since walkouts of this kind are not unprecedented, and have been used by both parties – would not have seemed especially likely as the session began. This was the first session in a long time, after all, when Democrats held supermajorities in both chambers, giving them the ability to pass almost anything, provided they could assemble a quorum – enough members on the floor to hold a valid vote. Since there were just enough Republicans in the Senate to keep a quorum from materializing, if they all departed, that counts as the last desperate maneuver they could take to stop something they really, really opposed.

That something turned out to be the “cap and trade” climate change measure, though Democratic Senate leaders said they didn’t have enough votes to pass it anyway. My speculation in this space at the session’s beginning was that the measure, which has been proposed and failed in several sessions, “will be back. A planned ‘cap and invest’ bill has been in development for weeks, and may be one of the hottest debate topics early in the session.” I was half-right; it became a bitter controversy at the session’s end, when Republicans sought to block it with their flight. That event in turn became so bitter that Senator Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, made a series of statements intemperate enough that disciplinary action was being considered against him as the session ended.

The Republicans returned barely in time to allow for important votes on budget and other matters; it made for a rushed close the session, as the Senate voted on 105 bills in the last full day. But don’t be surprised if there’s not a move sometime soon for Oregon to join other state legislatures that require only a simple majority of the members to be present to cast votes; that would require a constitutional amendment. (It might help clarify for some people an Oregon legislative oddity: a “quorum” requires two thirds of a chamber, but “supermajority” only two thirds; most people in most places might reverse those numbers.) In this case, barely a third of one half of the legislature held the state and its budget hostage, a situation many people may not want to see repeated.

For all the attention on that, quite a bit else substantive did happen, a lot of it in the first half of the session. Back in January I also speculated that Democrats who now had solid control of the legislature would use it to pass a wish list of measures, and with a few exceptions – cap and trade being a big one, gun safety measures being another – that happened. Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick said the assembly passed a string of Democratic “holy grail items,” a reasonable description.

A massive increase in the budget for public schools was passed, less than some advocates wanted but more than many had expected. A bill providing for more expansive paid family leave was approved. So was a series of restrictions on many landlords in the area of rent increases and evictions; changes in rules to allow for denser – meaning in many cases, more affordable – housing cleared as well. Regulation of oil and diesel usage, and motor vehicle disassembly, roared through near session’s end, only a few in a long string of environmental measures that did pass. Democrats pushed through pre-paid postage for mail-in ballots, and drivers licenes for undocumented immigrants.

The legislature, including leading Democrats, had been reluctant for years to pass substantial limitations on campaign contributions, and a state constitutional amendment would be needed to make it stick. Such an amendment, allowing for the first time in many years some limits on that spending, will go to the voters next November. Portland attorney Jason Kafoury, a long-time activist in the area, said the proposal had seemed dead at one point but then pushed through quickly, “an amazing accomplishment. It’s the first time the Legislature has done anything on campaign finance reform in my lifetime.”

Legislators also sent to the voters a proposal to increase cigarette taxes to roughly match the higher levels in Washington and California.

The session was notable for odds and ends, too, including a couple that would trigger into action depending on what happens elsewhere around the country. One would set Oregon on permanent daylight savings time, if the federal government approves (though how people near the border areas around Oregon might feel about that is less clear). Another would direct Oregon’s electoral college votes to whatever presidential candidate wins the national popular vote (though that would take effect only if enough states to create an electoral majority also signed on).

Some legislative sessions come and go with few ripples in the pond, little recollection in emotion or substance that they had been there.

This was not one of those.

(This article first appreared in the News Register, McMinnville, Oregon.)



Here’s a place where long-range thinking and interests bump up against short-term.

The long range in the Idaho Magic Valley looks partly like this: Two centuries ago animal life in the south-central Idaho desert was sparse; big animals were few, and humans, not large in number, passed through rather than stay for long. About a century and a quarter ago, humans figured out how to effectively redirect water, mainly from the Snake River, and use it to grow crops at scale, changing much of the region from desert to cropland – the “magic” of the regional name.

As the water was limited, so was the ability to keep on expanding. Other less thirsty uses of water were expanded to enhance use of the territory, and one of those was cattle production. To a point, the cattle activity like the crops largely could go across the region without diminishing the area’s ability to replenish itself. But there are limits.

Cattle were grazed in the valley a century and more ago, but in small numbers. They grew gradually, and by the mid-1980s the population of the cattle – about 75,000 then – began to approach the number of people in the area.

Concerns began to be raised, as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) ballooned.

A dozen years ago, when the valley’s cattle population was estimated at 341,000, the Twin Falls Times News wrote about it: “Last week at a Jerome County commissioners’ meeting concerning an application for an 18,555-cow feedlot, small-dairy owner Blaine Miller asked commissioners to consider a moratorium on new dairies in the county. In Cassia County earlier this year, a group of small-operation farmers joined forces to fight a permit application for a large dairy.”

But the growth continued.

Today the Magic Valley is home to about 417,000 head of cattle, more than twice the number of people in the area, each of which not only consume water but also leave their waste product on, and seeping into, the ground. Those cattle produce much more manure than is produced by the vastly larger human population of New York City.

This came back to attention last week with release of a report by the Idaho Conservation League (you can read it at warning that the groundwater in the area – mainly meaning the Snake River Plain Aquifer, a source of drinking water for 300,000 people in Idaho – is becoming contaminated with nitrate and phosphorus pollution. The problem is not extreme yet, but the trend lines aren’t favorable.

The report notes, “The available groundwater quality data, while limited, clearly indicates that nitrate and phosphorus concentrations are well above natural background levels in certain portions of the ESPA.

“These elevated concentrations are directly linked to human activities on the Snake River Plain – specifically, waste generated by large concentrated animal feeding operations and overapplication of fertilizer on agricultural fields. These concentrations are projected to continue to rise for the foreseeable future with likely worsening human health risks.”

The ICL added, “These water quality issues will increasingly have more severe implications for Idaho’s ability to meet water quality standards, manage population growth and protect the health of Idahoans.”

The difficulty is in large part economic, because those cattle and the industries they’re linked to increasingly have become the economic engine of south-central Idaho, even more than all those magic plant crops. Two generations ago dairy was a big industry in that part of Idaho, but now it’s enormous. Cheese producers are increasingly important in the area. A yogurt producer has become Twin Falls’ flagship business. A major diminishment of cattle operations in the Magic Valley now would be a huge economic blow to the region.

Dealing with this would create serious short-term economic problems. Deferring the situation, or letting it continue on the trajectory of the last few decades, would create bigger issues down the road. This is one of those situations where the people of a region decide what they’re about, and what they plan to leave behind.



That recent high-profile legislative letter about university inclusiveness used this as a sort of moral cornerstone:

“As Governor Brad Little has stated on numerous occasions: We need to do things the ‘Idaho way!’”

So what is the Idaho Way when it comes to welcoming people – that is, people who may not look, sound or believe the same as a majority of Idahoans do?

Back in the days when the Aryan Nations planted their overtly racist headquarters in the Idaho panhandle, the Way seemed to refer to what state officials and other leading Idahoans made certain to tell whoever would listen: We welcome people here, whoever they may be; the Aryans’ attitudes are nothing like ours.

Fast forward …

The July 9 letter from Representative Barbara Dee Erhardt of Idaho Falls, co-signed by 27 fellow House Republicans (notice for clarity: Little was not among the signatories), bore a thin fig leaf but in practice made clear that many Idahoans, some in the Statehouse, who really don’t want people who aren’t like those in the Idaho majority to come here. Those words weren’t on the surface, but you don’t have to dig hard to get there.

The letter was directed to the new president of Boise State University, its subject the institution’s programs on inclusiveness: “This drive to create a diversified and inclusive culture becomes divisive and exclusionary because it separates and segregates students. These initiatives by nature highlight differences and suggest that certain groups are treated unequally now – and that BSU should redress these grievances.” It goes on to suggest that money spent on inclusiveness-related programs could be better spent on keeping down the ever-higher cost of tuition for students.

Those rationales aren’t even good window dressing. None of the programs referenced either separate or segregate students (not legal in any event). Nor is their cost more than a sliver of university spending; if they all ended tomorrow students wouldn’t see any improvement in their cost structure. If the legislators were serious about helping with tuition costs they could start with better funding the state colleges and universities, which badly need it; but then, these same legislators have built careers out of keeping university budgets as paltry as possible.

No sale: This letter was simply an Idaho entry in the national culture wars, a softer regional version of the Donald Trump call for four members of Congress, whose races and politics were other than his, to be sent somewhere else (never minding that three of them were born in the United States, and the fourth also is a citizen), reflected in his crowds’ chant, “Send her back!”

In recent years BSU has touted itself, reasonably, as a metropolitan research institution, and its growth is linked to that identity. A “metropolitan research” university, anywhere, gets that way by bringing in and fostering learning and research among a wide range of people, not just within a state or even the nation, but worldwide.

Learning tends to take off when you put together people with a wide range of backgrounds, skills, knowledge and perspectives. It’s why congresses and legislatures were intended to include scores of people, not just three or four – the hope being that a wide range of view and perspective will bring a deeper understanding. (Of course, the Idaho Legislature isn’t exactly broad in scope …) Such universities, and the United States has many, are a big piece of the reason this country has grown, learned, advanced and prospered in the last century. Locally, BSU has for years developed large, and growing, economic and social impact.

It may be easy for people in homogenous communities, as many around Idaho are, to forget, but there is a difference and there are challenges for people coming into new places where there aren’t many people like you; the ability to connect with people like yourself, and see some reflection of yourself, can be reassuring and even necessary. Too, people who are a little different from the majority sometimes face maltreatment, and effort often is needed to remediate that.

Here’s the core of the BSU Statement of Diversity and Inclusivity from February 2017: “We recognize that our success is dependent on how well we value, engage, include, and utilize the rich diversity of our faculty, staff, students, and alumni. We believe that prejudice, oppression, and discrimination are detrimental to human dignity, and that a vibrant and diverse campus community enhances the learning environment of the populations that we serve.”

So in this context, what is the “Idaho Way”? As debate over that goes on, students at a university in Idaho, some a little different in background than the majority of Idahoans, continue to learn and teach and research and hope the state’s politics doesn’t sometime soon come crashing down on their heads.



Neo-cons (the word is an abbreviation of neoconservatism, and does not relate to a conference called NeoCon) have been around a while, long enough that the Rolling Stones cut a late-career sarcastic song about them around the start of the millennium. But this currency still circulates.

Columnist Max Boot cited – early in 2019 – headlines including “How the neocons captured Donald Trump.” “The continuing lunacy of the neocons.” “Return of the neocons!” He goes on to suggest, fairly enough, that “‘Neoconservatism’ once had a real meaning – back in the 1970s. But the label has now become meaningless. With many of those who are described as neocons, including me, fleeing the Trumpified right, the term’s sell-by date has passed. There are more ex-cons than neocons by this point.”

The Conservapedia took a crack at it, though: “in American politics [it] is someone presented as a ‘conservative’ but who actually favors big government, globalism, interventionism, and a hostility to religion in politics and government. The word means ‘newly conservative,’ and thus formerly liberal. A neocon is a RINO Backer, and like RINOs does not accept most of the important principles in the Republican Party platform. Neocons do not participate in the March for Life, nor stand up for traditional marriage, advocate other conservative social values, or emphasize putting America first. Neocons support attacking and even overthrowing foreign governments, despite how that often results in more persecution of Christians. Some neocons (like Dick Cheney) have profited immensely from the military-industrial complex. Many neocons are globalists and support the War on Sovereignty.”

Any number of actual neo-cons may quibble with much of that; as people who mostly came to their views more or less one by one rather than in a mass movement, many individual differences may be apparent.

The term started picking up significant usage in the 1970s (neo-liberal would follow soon after) to describe people whose background was in Franklin Roosevelt-style liberalism but who felt that many of their allies had become “soft” in opposing communism, meaning that a hawkish perspective on defense was a key part of their world view.

What did pre-existing conservatives think of them? The Conservapedia offers, “Paleoconservatives, who dislike Neoconservatism intensely, have argued that it emerged from Trotskyite theories, especially the notion of permanent revolution. There are four fundamental flaws in the paleoconservatives’ attack: most of the neoconservatives were never Trotskyites; none of them ever subscribed to the right-wing Socialism of Max Shachtman; the assertion that neoconservatives subscribe to “inverted Trotskyism” is misleading; and neoconservatives advocate democratic globalism, not permanent revolution.”

Neo-cons accounted for many – by no means all – of the early and leading advocates of the 2003 Iraq war, and as that wore on, and as the Obama Adninistration sidelined them, the term fell into less frequent usage.
In the Trump Administration, neo-cons have seen some resurgence. Its current (at this writing) national security advisor, John Bolton, has been described as “one of the key figures of neoconservatism.”

Writer Caitlin Johnstone argued4 that “You can trace a straight line from the endless US military expansionism we’ve been seeing since 9/11 back to the rise of neoconservatism, so paying attention to this dynamic is important for diagnosing and curing the disease.”



Bill Roden’s obituary told a story about him I can’t recall ever having heard, certainly not from him, and it may explain a lot about who he was and why he had the effect on people he did.

During World War II, internment camps were set up around the American west to hold large numbers of Japanese-Americans. Roden’s parents, then federal employees, were among those assigned to manage the camps – first one in Topaz, Utah, then at Hunt in Idaho – and their young boy came with them. Roden’s parents were deeply opposed to the internment, and in protest they moved in with the Japanese while working there, bringing their son with them. That was how Roden spent part of his childhood: Absorbing what happens when we treat people so abominably.

He didn’t forget. A quarter-century later, as a state senator in Idaho, he wrote and pushed through the state’s first civil rights law.

Roden, who died on July 8 at 90, has been known in more recent years for other things, such as being the most influential Idaho lobbyist of the last half-century. But to chat and drink coffee with him, as I have over the years, is to see the two aspects of the man as one.

Back in the 80s and early 90s I occasionally cobbled together lists of the most influential lobbyists, usually based on recommendations from legislators. The lists were always interesting to compile, but not because of any curiosity about whose name would be on top of the list. That was always Bill Roden. And it wasn’t because of his client roster or his deep contacts at the Statehouse; it had more to do with the sense you got of the integrity and decency of the man. The irony is that although he once was an elected official – a state senator, the last one elected by all of Ada County when it was a single legislative district – and a highly capable one at that, it’s what he did in the decades after that made him such a major figure in Idaho.

When Martin Peterson and I wrote a book about the 100 most influential Idahoans in the state’s history, he made that list too, at number 83 – one of the few people still living we allowed on the list. Roden would be on that list today, though no longer among the living.

Here’s some of what we wrote about him in 2012:

“How to assess the influence of a lobbyist, who pursues not so much an individual, personal agenda, but rather that of an employer; and whose influence is filtered through that of the people he tries to influence? How to do it, moreover, when much of what that lobbyist does is far from visible, when his actions leave only subtle traces? There’s no perfect answer.”

But we argued that Bill Roden, a Boise attorney, and central figure in Idaho government and politics for half a century and more, clearly had enormous impact: “When it comes to persuading the Idaho legislature to do something, Roden has for decades been considered the top pick by far. That surely translates to placement on this list.”

Roden set the pattern and mold for lobbying in Idaho’s capital, which – owing in no small part to his influence – tends to be a good deal more straightforward and honorable than many Idahoans might suspect. But he also quietly advocated for many things and served in all kinds of civic roles. He was one of those people who helped to keep the peace when politics would get a little too ugly and intense.

We need more Bill Rodens around these days. We really need them.



Why can’t you tell me why you feel entitled to take someone else’s money, their property, their accumulated assets?1 Why does another working American taxpayer have to pay for your existence?
► meme in The Federalist Papers

As a concept, entitlements cut in two directions, one of them much less acknowledged than the other in recent American politics; and those sit on top of other definitions as well.

In the process, the word has spread and mutated beyond all earlier recognition.

In psychology, “Entitlement is an enduring personality trait, characterized by the belief that one deserves preferences and resources that others do not. … When people feel entitled, they want to be different from others. But just as frequently they come across as indifferent to others.”

Entitlement used in a different way, however, is a thing conferred, whether asked for or not: “the right to a particular privilege or benefit, granted by law or custom. You have a legal entitlement to speak to a lawyer if you’re ever arrested …”

So the question becomes, under what conditions should we be entitled to something – such as a benefit? And when does “entitlement” become something that people simply come to expect of others, whether or not there’s any merit to the case?

That’s a demarcation line in American politics.

“Entitlement” as a reference to a government benefit goes back to the GI Bill in the 40s, and was used in a strict sense: If you were served in the military, you were entitled to receive this benefit. Entitlements carry the element of restrictions (you have to qualify) and open-endedness (if you do qualify, we won’t deny it).

That makes it fundamentally different from a charity, which is a purely discretionary gift: It can be dispensed or not, under any – and possibly changing or arbitrary – conditions. You might have to beg for charity; in the case of an entitlement, you either qualify or you don’t.

Language writer Merrill Perlman argued the word has “been weaponized by partisan politics, of the legislative and identity kind. Government offers all sorts of ‘entitlements,’ like Social Security, unemployment compensation, supplementary food purchase programs, etc. … But now, people opposing ‘entitlements’ often equate them with government giveaways to freeloaders or undeserving people. In racial politics, too, ‘entitlement’ has taken on a negative cast. In 2013, Justice Antonin Scalia called the extension of parts of the Voting Rights Act ‘perpetuation of racial entitlement.’”

As a writer in The New Yorker said at the time, “Scalia is saying, in effect, that the Voting Rights Act gave a gift – a ‘racial entitlement’ – to black people, and the result has been that ‘the normal political processes’ don’t work. More often, it is white people who are said to have the ‘entitlement’ if they act in ways seen as oppressing people of color.”
Entitlement is odd usage in this context, though, since fair voting is something that nearly all citizens – not just a narrowly-defined category – are supposed to be able to rely on.



For years the debate on family values has focused more on ideology than on what actually keeps families together.
► Hara Estroff Marano, in Psychology Today

“Family values” has become an aging term, fallen into disrepair and in some quarters, disrepute, but it continues to pop up in both ironic and non-ironic contexts.

Political people have long promoted the value of family structures – as for that matter an overwhelming majority of people, not just in the United States but globally, do. But not until the 1970s did the political conversation start to factor in the idea that a family model of two-parent single-paycheck heterosexuals with several children was not the only structure at large in American society (and, from the context of the rhetoric, this was a distinction from other countries; you wonder how all those other people reproduced). Other forms of families have developed in the couple of generations since, and they have become a central focus of American politics – in various ways.

The political phrase “family values” got its first substantial appearance in modern time at the 1976 Republican convention, when the party’s platform said “Economic uncertainty, unemployment, housing difficulties, women’s and men’s concerns with their changing and often conflicting roles, high divorce rates, threatened neighborhoods and schools, and public scandal all create a hostile atmosphere that erodes family structures and family values. Thus it is imperative that our government’s programs, actions, officials and social welfare institutions never be allowed to jeopardize the family. We fear the government may be powerful enough to destroy our families; we know that it is not powerful enough to replace them. Because of our concern for family values, we affirm our beliefs, stated elsewhere in this Platform, in many elements that will make our country a more hospitable environment for family life …”

The phrase, or the ideas underlying it, has not left American politics since, and picked up steam in arguments over the Equal Rights Amendment, women in the workplace, abortion, sex education and more.

Writer Neil J. Young outlined part of the battle this way: “As the ‘family values’ movement grew, it increasingly encouraged paranoid fantasies of how secular liberals in the federal government and global organizations like the United Nations worked to separate children from their parents’ ideas and values.”

For example, in 1978 Pro Family Forum issued a paper portraying the 1979 International Children’s Year as a scurrilous undercover plot to ‘liberate’ children from their families: “Do you want the minds (and consequently, the souls) of YOUR CHILDREN turned over to international humanist/socialist planners?”

The 1996 book by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, It Takes a Village, was similarly described as part of an effort to disrupt parental authority and family structures – an attempt to destroy the family and put children under control of the state. (Anyone bothering to read the book would come away with a very different impression.)

Most of such arguments stay a little submerged in the larger national audience, but for many years “family values” was heavily used as code to evoke them. Language consultant Frank Luntz reported that “family values” has “tested” better than “traditional values,” or “American values” or “community values” – being preferred by more than twice as many people as any of those.

The phrase easily can be put to contrary uses, however. The splitting of immigrant families at the Mexican border in 2018, for example, drew loud complaints that families were being dismissed and devalued, and the phrase “family values” was being invoked in new ways.

Columnist Frank Bruni wrote in late 2017, “Try this on for size: Democrats are the party of family values because they promote the creation of more families. They did precisely that with their advocacy of marriage equality, which didn’t tug the country away from convention but toward it, by encouraging gay and lesbian Americans to live in the sorts of arrangements that conservatives in fact extol. Democrats also want to give families the flexibility and security that help keep them afloat and maybe intact. That’s what making the work force more hospitable to women and increasing the number of Americans with health insurance do. And Republicans lag behind Democrats on both fronts.”



Last week a national political reporter asked me what how I thought Idaho’s new governor, Brad Little, was doing. Was he he thriving? Was he managing okay? Was his struggling?

It seemed like a good time to pause and consider the new governor, for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s a six-month mark, and time enough has passed to get a sense of what this new administration is like; the effective date of many new laws has just passed, and that seems like a fair official marker.

There’s an unofficial one too, with the election last weekend of Raul Labrador as state Republican Party chair. Last year Little and Labrador were competitors for the Republican nomination for governor, and the fight turned fierce at times, involving both hammer and tongs. Political tradition has it that a governor more or less gets to choose, or at least have some say over, the choice of their party’s chair. That hasn’t been the case in Idaho for more than a decade, but the sight of a former – maybe future? – harsh critic of the party’s governor is highly unusual. It may also say something about the real distinction between Little and large parts of the party’s structure.

So as Little is, and will be, watched, what is there to see?

In some ways, not a tremendous lot has changed. You start running out fast when you try compiling a list of individual things Little has done that his predecessor (and the man who set him on the road to the job), C.L. “Butch” Otter, absolutely wouldn’t have done – that is, anything that’s a real reversal of the former policy. You probably can scratch out a few items, and there have been a lot of personnel changes, but nothing very large or sweeping comes to mind. And he has retained or renewed many of the visible devices of the Otter years, like Capital for a Day and the education task force (both of which were useful ideas then and now).

In spite of the limited direction change, the Little Administration so far is far different from the Otter Administration.

It is much more active. In its energy level it resembles the brief administration of Jim Risch, who served as governor for a few months in 2006 and seemed to cram the work of most of a full term into that time.

The governor himself seems to be popping up at events and meetings all over the state, meeting with lots of people, at a faster pace than Idaho is accustomed to. His office often has been launching new ideas, task forces and proposals two and three a week, becoming far more active than it had been in many years.

Early times for a governor often are measured by relationships with the state legislature. Little’s has been the most effective and productive in a very long time. He did not issue many vetoes – though he showed he was willing to, and did in an extreme case – but then his office’s work with the legislature was more behind the scenes than on-stage. Legislators, including Democratic legislators, talked about how closely the governor’s office now was reviewing legislation and talking directly with lawmakers about it, at the staff level and even personally by the governor, in ways they had not experienced before. That doesn’t mean everyone always reached agreement, but it does mean communication channels were open and active.

Much of this may not be especially visible to most Idahoans who encounter the governor’s office through statements and news items that often don’t look a lot different from other governors over the last quarter century. But the difference is there,and it may develop into some policy differences down the line.

So in response to the reporter’s question about the governor, I replied that the new Idaho governor appeared to be thriving. That could change. But it looks that way at the six-month mark.



It is best to define the welfare state not through its noble goals but through its instruments.
► Cato Institute, 2018

“Welfare” is enshrined as a core purpose of the U.S. constitution: to “promote the general Welfare.” Its top dictionary definition (per Merriam Webster) very much reflects that: “the state of doing well especially in respect to good fortune, happiness, well-being, or prosperity.
That means, in recent political discussion, “welfare” is one of the great, classic terms of art.

The word gets two basic kinds of artful usage, referring to “welfare” as benefits for the needy – “a government program which provides financial aid to individuals or groups who cannot support themselves. … The goals of welfare vary, as it looks to promote the pursuance of work, education or, in some instances, a better standard of living” – and as the “welfare state,” which is in part a metaphorical extension of that.

There has never been a “welfare program” in the sense of a single specific program going by that name (which may contribute to the feeling that it’s hard to get a handle on it). But support for low-income people is an old concept, going back at least to the first Roman Emperor Augustus, who offered a “grain dole” for the poor. Societies through the Middle Ages and beyond provided variants, more generous or less. Commonly this was regarded as charity, but the term “welfare” came into use early in the 20th century as an alternative to denigrating associations of receiving “charity.”

Welfare in the sense of “well-being” had been around for centuries; Shakespeare used it long before it became part of the American Constitution.

In Great Britain welfare work appeared in 1903, welfare policy 1905, welfare centre 1917, and welfare state 1941. An essay on this noted, “One result of this new usage was that the word moved from being a term for a condition to one for a process or activity.”

Negative connotations soon returned, however, and much political discussion about “people on welfare” implicitly involved lazy and shiftless people (often with racial overtones as well). It was sufficiently part of the social conversation in the 60s and 70s to get a quick reference in a comedy music record (“When You’re Hot You’re Hot”), when singer Jerry Reed, singing the part of a street gambler tossed into jail, complained, “Who gonna collect my welfare?”

There may be no single “welfare program,” but there are – under its umbrella – a number of programs which do distribute benefits, sometimes direct income, often to lower income people. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (long known as “food stamps”) usually would be included, as would Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and several others, but exact list easily could be debated. Some people might include Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare on the welfare list, though probably most Americans wouldn’t. Polling has shown those as both highly popular and justifiable at least on grounds that the recipients have paid into it.

“Welfare” has gotten less attention in the new millennium, probably in large part because of the “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996,” signed by President Bill Clinton, which he said would “end welfare as we know it.” It did make some major changes, though the results have been mixed.

One historical description said “The new law built on decades of anti-welfare sentiment, which Ronald Reagan popularized in 1976 with the racially-loaded myth of the ‘welfare queen.’ In the two decades that followed, progressives and conservatives alike put forward reform proposals aimed at boosting work and reducing welfare receipt.

Progressive proposals included expanded childcare assistance, paid leave, and tax credits for working families. Conservatives, on the other hand, tended to favor work requirements – without any of the corresponding investments to address barriers to employment. In 1996, after vetoing two Republican proposals that drastically cut the program’s funding, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act into law. The new legislation converted AFDC into a flat-funded block grant – TANF – and sent it to the states to administer. The law’s stated purpose was to move families from ‘welfare to work’.”

How well that’s worked out is a subject of debate, though as a matter of politics the subject has moved from front to back burner. (That’s not to say it might not shift again.)

Writer Elisabeth Park said that “When conservatives talk about ‘welfare,’ they make it sound like this pit that lazy, undeserving people wallow in forever, rather than a source of help that’s there when we need it – and that we all pay for through our taxes. … Instead, we should say Social Safety Net: This resonates better, because it conjures an image of something that catches us when we fall, but that we can easily bounce out of.”

But the word “welfare” already does double duty, with a second use just as active in the new century as it was in the last, with “welfare state.”

Back in the 70s William Safire wrote of the “welfare state”: a “government that provides economic protection for all its citizens; this is done, say its critics, at the price of individual liberty and removes incentives needed for economic growth.” Welfare state as a term has been around for a while, about a century, referring to various nations in Europe (Sweden may have been the first to get the description).

A welfare state (says the Cambridge Dictionary) is “a system that allows the government of a country to provide social services such as healthcare, unemployment benefit, etc. to people who need them, paid for by taxes.” The exact list of services varies from place to place – by location and by what is meant by “welfare state.”

But what is meant, exactly, by “welfare state”? What benefits or services does it provide, what restrictions does it impose? All that seems to be in a beholder’s eye.

The Cato Institute, which to put it mildly is no supporter of a welfare state, offered in one essay: “It is useful to regard the welfare state as a special kind of welfare system, which we define as arrangements to deal with various risks facing individuals – such as acute poverty, sickness, and accidents. A brief look at history reveals the existence of various welfare arrangements – for example, family (kin) based, religion based, civil based, corporate based, and market based (insurance through jobs, private savings, and commercial insurance). Countries have always had some type of welfare system combining all or some of the above arrangements.” It points out that a “welfare system” – in which some needs are met through non-governmental means – is not the same thing as a “welfare state.” The essay doesn’t clarify, though, how to make the jump from public provision of the services and benefits, to private provision. (Charity never has been nearly sufficient to meet the needs addressed by public systems.)

Most studies of the “welfare state” face an obstacle: No two are exactly alike, and the provisions enacted by each are different, and change over time. Most governments in recent centuries – and many from much older – incorporate at least a few elements of the “welfare state,” while absolute (even if extensive) “cradle to grave” provisioning is still highly unusual.

“Welfare state” can be used only as a general concept (as it’s often used as a term of opprobrium) rather than as something specific; the closer you try to get to specificity, the more the term, as specific definition, slips away. It has that in common with many political words.

One of the growing concepts in health care (astonishingly, not a subject of serious political controversy) is coordinated care, which has been defined as “the deliberate organization of patient care activities between two or more participants involved in a patient’s care to facilitate the appropriate delivery of health care services.”9 Less bureaucratically, it means medical and other professionals work both together and directly with the patient so that a complex problem – such as a chronic illness which may have several causes and need several plans of attack – can be addressed comprehensively; piecemeal approaches wind up in many cases as poor band-aids on symptoms rather than real solutions, resulting in regular relapses.

Welfare (aside from the full-state element) could be reconsidered with something like that in mind.

A book called Radical Help by Hilary Cottom10 addressed some of this in Great Britain. One report on the book11 cited the case of Ella, “a British woman who grew up in a broken home and was abused by her stepdad. Her eldest son got thrown out of school and ended up sitting around the house drinking. By the time her daughter was 16, she was pregnant and had an eating disorder. Ella, though in her mid-30s, had never had a real job. Life was a series of endless crises – temper tantrums, broken washing machines, her son banging his head against the walls. Every time the family came into contact with the authorities, another caseworker was brought in to provide a sliver of help. An astonishing 73 professionals spread across 20 different agencies and departments got involved with this family. Nobody had ever sat down with them to devise a comprehensive way forward.”

Ella’s case is more the norm than the exception, in the United States too. Her situation inside that structure never really improves, even after (in Cottom’s estimate) the British system spends a quarter million pounds yearly, mostly on administrative cost and time, on her and her family.

When Americans turn cynical about welfare, situations like that – and its American counterparts – are part of what they’re bearing in mind.
Cottam described a new approach being tried in Britain comparable to coordinated care. Ella and others like her instead meet with something called a “life team,” an interdisciplinary group of professionals; the focus now is to figure out where Ella would like to take her life – in a productive way – and then find answers to get there. Instead of Ella plugging into a one-size-fits-all system, the “system” reshapes to get her on her feet. And, as in the case of coordinated care, the results often have been surprisingly positive.

If “welfare” is redefined as flexibly helping people lift themselves up, rather than as a system for dispensing benefits, “welfare” could take on a more positive meaning.