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When Welfare Was in Very Local Hands ...

Can the states do a better job managing welfare? Do things get managed better at a more local level?

In 1966 I moved to the town of St. Andrew's, Vt., and bought an old farmhouse and 50 acres on top of a windy hill. The house had been owned by Miss Gertie Spencer, who was born in it and lived there all of her 95 years. She kept herself alive with a small herd of butter cows, about three, and some chickens. Once a week she took butter and eggs in her horse-drawn cart to the store in St. Andrew's village.

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A man worked for her for little more than his room and board. One winter in the late 1950s he needed hospital care and neither of them had any cash in reserve. She borrowed $600 from a nefarious type in the village, and unwisely pledged the farm against the loan. It is doubtful she understood what she had signed, but the following spring the lender moved to foreclose. Nice fellow.

Welfare in Vermont was then at the town-government level in the form of an elected official, the overseer of the poor. This office was held for many years by Andrea Briggs. What Mrs. Briggs did next may or may not have been legal, but it was creative. She somehow got the town to intercede and pay off the moneylender, halting his claim against Miss Spencer's farm. There was some objection, notably from the lender, about the use of town money ($600 was a substantial sum then) for solving what was clearly a private problem. But Briggs said it would cost more if the town were made to support Gertie and her hired man as wards, and this way they would remain self-sufficient. (Gertie chopped her own kindling well into her last decade, often missing the wood. The floor in the summer kitchen bore testimony: She had very nearly chopped all the way through it and into the cellar.)

Briggs's action was reviled as just short of Marxist by some, but the majority of the town saw the wisdom and charity of it, and they re- elected her year after year. The office had an annual stipend of zero.

Briggs was still overseer of the poor when I bought the house, which needed everything. One day a carpenter drove up and asked for work. His name was Gene Kitter. He had moved here because, well, he had had some problems in Pennsylvania, and he thought people might be nicer up here in the quieter, simpler country of Vermont.

Mr. Kitter had an air of desperate confidence, and given the rattletrap car he was driving and housing his family in, it wasn't surprising that he preferred to ignore the reality of his situation. He began working on our kitchen. His carpentry wasn't bad, but he asked to be paid at the end of every day, saying he needed to get food. Sometimes he bought beer and didn't show up the next day.

Someone had agreed to let him live on part of their land in exchange for work, and he was trying to build himself a house before winter. He began to show up for work at our place less frequently, and I discovered that his daily draw on pay was getting in advance of the amount of work he had done. One day he came by, clearly inebriated, and asked for an advance. I said no.

He didn't come around again, and I saw him only once more when I stopped by his house, actually a plywood shack, to demand that he complete the work owed. He was drunk. His wife pleaded with me to forgive him. She said she'd make sure he got back to work. She was crying, and two children, cowering behind a wreck of a stove, soon joined in.

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A few days later the Kitter family left St. Andrew's for parts unknown. The owner of the land said if I removed the shack I could keep the plywood, about eight sheets of the cheapest kind. There was only one room and a dirt floor, and its framing uprights and rafters were young spruce trees, still oozing resin.

In the shack I discovered cartons of US Department of Agriculture surplus food - bags of rice and flour and cans of something called "potted meat product." Briggs had delivered these to the Kitters as part of her role as overseer of the poor. I asked her if she wanted the stuff back. She said the federal government delivered more of the stuff than she could give away.

I tried to cook up some of the surplus rice, but it turned into a gluey mass, gray rather than white. We fed the potted meat product to the dogs.

Briggs lost her nonpaying job when the State of Vermont assumed the responsibility for welfare. The overseer of the poor was abolished as a town office. I never got to ask her whether anyone picked up her stock of potted meat product.

The town-government office of overseer of the poor is about as local and basic as the welfare effort can be, and certainly it doesn't attract any career bureaucrats. Briggs tried to be creative and considerate, but it was an uneven effort, and some situations were well beyond her control. Truthfully, I don't think she much liked the Kitters, and that colored her judgment. After all, they were from Pennsylvania, not Vermont, and charity began at home. She was relieved when the state of Vermont took over the responsibility, spreading the load on wider shoulders than the tiny population of St. Andrew's.

Devolving welfare to the states and local governments may soon produce the same problems. Sometimes and in some states things will be better than the federal system, and sometimes they will be worse. I think the condition of the poor in Vermont under the state Department of Social Welfare is improved. This is largely because of the basically generous spirit of the state government, not as generous as wealthy New York State to the west, but far more so than every-man-for-himself New Hampshire to the east. What will happen to poor people in Mississippi or Arkansas is anyone's guess.

Under the Republican plan to replace the national bureaucracy with 50 state bureaucracies, a plan based more on assumptions than on known outcomes, few clear definitions have come from the proponents. What is the equivalent of Mrs. Briggs's freedom to come up with solutions? Who will control the equivalent of St. Andrew's moneylender, preying on misfortune? And what will be the equivalent of surplus potted meat product, stuff that looked like food but contained, as the label proclaimed, ears, snouts, and tails? Neither Mrs. Briggs nor I would have eaten it, but we thought, by not thinking about it, that it was fine for the Kitter children.

*Jeff Danziger is the Monitor's editorial cartoonist.

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