A Small World (Two Stories and a Brain Teaser)

I. The First World Story

President Clinton has finally ended the suspense and pledged to sign the welfare reform bill. Not surprisingly, the mainstream media have presented this in terms of personalities: Clinton completes his transformation into a Reagan Democrat - stealing Dole's political thunder in the process. Senator Moynihan, long known for his academic studies of the mores of the poor, agonizes; the joyful noises of speaker Gingrich drown him out. "Welfare as We Know It" (in the free world today) has been eliminated in favor of a requirement that poor people either get jobs or starve.

It is widely claimed that welfare programs - the main ones in question being AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and Food Stamps - foster "dependency" by tempting people to choose government handouts over productive work. The facts are, as usual, a bit more complicated. Like everyone else, poor people tend to survey their economic options and make rational choices. Factoring in such costs as day care, health care, transportation and work clothes, most welfare recipients would be far worse off, were they to take the minimum wage jobs available to them.

II. The Third World Story

For the last few months reports have been surfacing in the press of savage disciplinary actions by Brazilian police against squatters. Land ownership in Brazil, as in much of Latin America, is heavily concentrated; 80% of Brazil’s arable land is held by less than 10% of its people. Peasants - sometimes organized under a group known as the Landless Movement - have attempted to occupy and cultivate unused land on large Brazilian estates. Conditions must be hard indeed for people to be willing to repeatedly risk their lives, against heavily armed government forces - to demonstrate the injustice of Brazil’s land policy.

The squatters’ motivation is clear. What is less easy to fathom is why the Brazilian government would resort to such extreme tactics against them. After all, they are only trying to take unused land for subsistence farming, and the landlords have plenty to spare. Why is Brazil willing to risk the exceedingly bad press of repeated massacres?

III. The Brain Teaser

The two situations described above are different in many ways; they are worlds and hemispheres apart. Or are they? In a deeper sense, they are quite similar. Both, after all, have to do with how a society provides (or denies) economic opportunities to its poorest members.

Not only that: in one respect, the two stories are very similar indeed. Economically, these two initiatives - the requirement of US welfare recipients to work, and the eviction of Brazilian squatters from unused land - will have the same ultimate effect. What effect is that?

Lindy Davies - August 3, 1996