Bootstrap Nation; Bill Clinton’s Best Legacy

That headline is going to make a few toupees spin, I know, but we’ve been talking, for the last few days, about socialism and socialized programs, and why they don’t work, or how they encourage mediocrity. As the discussion spilled over into the comments section, I wrote:

Sometimes people need a hand-out, yes, but making it a way of life has never ended up being a positive…No handout can replace the sense of pride one gets by accomplishing things on one’s own.

The emails on this subject have been wide-ranging and in one of them I was taken to task by a reader identifying herself as a “progressive” and requesting anonymity, who wagged a finger at me for advocating a “bootstraps” mentality that -– to this woman’s way of thinking -– is a “tired old canard” belonging “to the last century.”

This is not the first time I’ve heard that, and argued back. I will never understand the mindset that says “give me” is better than “please take,” whether it be on a spiritual or material matter. Yes, the work we do, the things we achieve fall into the “please take” category – because they come out of ourselves to be received by the world.

I wonder if my progressive reader would feel differently about the “bootstraps” mentality if she were to consider that Bill Clinton brought its value into sharp focus.

Bear with me, Clinton-haters. Despite what the extremists on both sides would tell you, no one person is ever always wrong or always right, and while it looks nigh impossible for some on “the other side” to ever admit to President Bush doing something right, that doesn’t mean we can’t do the classier thing and give a fellow credit where it’s due.

Bill Clinton might have vetoed the GOP-written welfare reform several times before finally –- in an election year –- signing the legislation, but he signed it. Amid all of the predictions of gloom and doom, the certainty of the left that the world would end should welfare-as-we-then-knew-it be updated and reformed, Clinton signed.

The world did not end. What ended was the seeming-entrenchment of whole groups of people, of all ethnic backgrounds, into a hopeless dependence upon the government which led nowhere, gave no promise, encouraged no future, thwarted dreams and individual potential, and perpetuated the whole idea of helplessness, of inability, of needing a caretaker.

Why did welfare reform work? Perhaps when people were liberated from the shackles of socially-engineered government dependence, when they were freed from the quicksand and muck of “Free Government Cheese” and able to move to the higher ground of “Unleashed Potential,” they grew in self-respect, self-confidence and – most importantly – in hope. The message “you can, if you try” was a louder, clearer and more spiritually sustaining message than “you can’t, so just give up”

The reformation of our Welfare system, which in the early 1990’s was burgeoning out of control, became a pushback against what President Bush has called “the soft racism of low-expectations,” and the long-term effect of that pushback is not surprising. Encouragement will always trump condescension, and the fisherman who catches his own supper will always feel better about himself than the man who begs the scraps.

When folks –- any folks, of any background — are using their own gifts and ingenuity to make their way, they have reason to hold up their heads, to defer failure and to pursue their dreams and goals. That contributes to what David Brooks, in 2005 saw as a growing sense of “virtue,” and decreased reports of domestic violence, theft and general disorder. It might even contribute to new reports that divorce is on the decline.

When people feel good about what they are doing, when they feel like they have some control over the direction their lives take – they have hope. And hope is not simply a feeling. Hope says, “awake, O Sleeper, arise from death!” Hope is the builder of bridges, the tamer of winds, the harnesser of ideas and possibilities. A poor man with hope is immeasurably richer than a wealthy man without it, because he carries within him the spark that can alight a thousand tomorrows.

By the curb, toward the edge of the flagging,
A knife-grinder works at his wheel, sharpening a great knife;
Bending over, he carefully holds it to the stone—by foot and knee,
With measur’d tread, he turns rapidly—As he presses with light but firm hand,
Forth issue, then, in copious golden jets,
Sparkles from the wheel.

– Walt Whitman “Sparkles from the Wheel”

Hope sparkles from the wheel, and all possibility is contained therein. And the man who can sharpen his own knife, and teach his children that craft, will never be helpless or hungry or cast aside as worthless. He will, therefore, be at peace, and so will his house, and columnists will write about it in wonder.

President Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law. And it has been a good thing, a better thing – perhaps – than many of us even realize. Whether Clinton will claim this legacy, however, is questionable. After all, the success of Welfare Reform has only proved – once again – that the helping hand of necessary, but structured, social aid can uplift and encourage, while the hand-out of creeping socialism can only deplete and depress our human spirit, drive and ingenuity. It is a legacy of which any conservative would be proud.

And the Democrats, since they’ve gotten back in power, have talked like nothing but good socialists. Claiming Clinton’s legacy would spoil the whole script.

UPDATE: For some thoughts on welfare and Clinton’s welfare reform from someone in the system at that time, go read this remarkable post at Pursuing Holiness:

I realized that without hope for the future, they simply couldn’t think or plan ahead. They were incapable of being anything but poor, as long as they were restricted by their hopelessness. I learned that the way for me to get off of welfare and out of poverty was to plan – and to plan to work.
[...]
I finally jumped through all the hoops and was approved for a cash benefit, food stamps, and Medicaid. The case worker mentioned in a very offhand way that I could get some job training if I wanted. With a baby to support on my own, yes, I was interested. She was surprised – evidently very few people took advantage of it, because the stipend was only $10 a day. You mean I get paid, too? Sign me up! This was my first formal computer training – basically a secretarial course – and the skills I gained I used to get a series of clerical jobs, then a job as a computer trainer, help desk, technical writer, and eventually I started a web development company which has been my living for the last five years or so.

Read the whole thing. More evidence that welfare reform worked found here.

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