Staring Across A Great Divide

In the 1970s the president of Haverford College became a totem for those who believed there was a schism between one America and another. John Coleman was a labor economist who took a sabbatical, not just to write a book but to live a life, or several of them. He dug ditches and picked up garbage, worked on a drilling rig and mined marble. When he later wound up in New York City running a foundation, he joined the auxiliary police force, worked as an emergency medical technician and one winter lived on the streets for 10 days to imagine, albeit briefly, the lives of the homeless.

The Coleman experiment, in which one man tried, in his own words, "to walk in other people's shoes," resonates as the administration considers welfare reform. Emboldened by the success of the 1996 measure, which led to a sharp decline in the welfare rolls, Washington politicians want to act again, forcing states to further decrease the number of those entitled to benefits. They are emboldened, too, by the fact that the most nightmarish scenarios conjured up by opponents of the original bill did not materialize, or at least did not come to light: legions of hungry children, thousands of homeless families.

But it would be a mistake to discount the distrust and fear behind those dire predictions because they are one leading edge of a sentiment that now runs as bone-deep in America as patriotism. It is the sense that there is a pernicious cognitive dissonance between those who run things and those who merely live with the results. That loud "crack!" we've been hearing for months is a great rift splitting ever wider, between the bloated executive class and the shareholders of corporations, between the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and the appalled faithful, between the men in suits responsible for national intelligence and the citizens who believed heretofore that those men had a clue.

In the case of welfare reform, the chasm between political leaders and assistance recipients seems nearly unbridgeable. Has any member of Congress ever tried to live for a month on a welfare check? For that matter, have any of them ever tried to live on the check that a welfare recipient would receive if she were lucky enough to find a job? The minimum wage hasn't been raised in six years; it's still $5.15 an hour, teenage baby-sitting pay. What about trying the poverty line, which is where more than one in 10 American families have taken up residence? That's an annual income below $17,463 for a family of four. Unfortunately, a study by the Economic Policy Institute found that a family earning twice that would still fall below a decent standard of living.

If you actually buy milk and gas, that's not news. But many of the decisions that shape day-to-day life seem to be made by people who float, like enormous unmoored zeppelins, over such minutiae of ordinary existence. Corporate officers, with their enormous compensation packages, are remote from both their workers and their consumers. Whistle-blowers have become the new heroes, leadership without arrogance, a bridge between power and humanity.

It has long been true that the wealthy have governed the lives of the poor, the well-connected the lives of the powerless, men the lives of women, rich whites the lives of poor blacks. This was once considered proper, the God-given right of the prosperous, according to the doctrine of economic Darwinism. But progress has taught us that such hierarchical decision making is often foolish, an outmoded vehicle that resists the important information that ordinary people can provide about everything from the assembly line to the welfare line.

Every time some politician refers to welfare as a "handout," you know he's never spent a moment in those endless lines, done the paperwork or endured the contempt of the caseworkers, and, for that matter, that he's never talked to those caseworkers, who are routinely cursed out and threatened. Every time a politician lets the alliterative phrase "welfare to work" roll off his tongue, you know he hasn't looked for a job in an economy in which even the educated and the experienced are having a hard time. As Douglas MacKinnon, Bob Dole's press secretary, wrote recently on the op-ed page of The New York Times, recounting a childhood on public assistance during which his family was evicted 34 times, "for far too many lawmakers, welfare recipients are nothing more than statistics or the subject of abstract policy debates."

It's not that the welfare system doesn't need to be reimagined; it remains, 25 years after New York state budget director Peter Goldmark described it thus, "hated by those who administer it, mistrusted by those who pay for it and held in contempt by those who receive it." But it would be useful if it could be reformed by those who understand it. John Coleman, where are you now that we need you? Where are your heirs, those who know that looking down, from an ivory tower, a corner office, a podium or a pulpit, often leads to little understanding, less useful change and a view of nothing more illuminating than polished wingtips?