Saturday, July 29, 2006

Welfare reform after 10 years

The Republican Congress passed welfare reform for the third time 10 years ago. President Clinton vetoed the first two bills. Facing his 1996 reelection he signed this one. Democrats in Congress assailed the bill has "mean-spirited," etc. Even God was against it according to the Children's Defense Fund, says Ron Haskins of Brookings Institute in the Wall Street Journal:
Marion Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund said that no one who believed in the Judeo-Christian tradition could support the bill.
The big excitement was about ending the entitlement to welfare for single mothers:
Kate O'Beirne, now of National Review, perfectly captured the philosophy of entitlement in 1995 testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, saying that the nation's welfare system operated on the principle of "spend more, demand less." Republicans wanted to demand more by breaking the entitlement and making the cash contingent on serious attempts to find work and achieve self-support. After three decades of failed federal "work" programs, Republicans had spent years behind the scenes--under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, Clay Shaw, Rick Santorum, Jim Talent and others--developing ideas about how to encourage, cajole or, when necessary, force mothers on welfare to work. Specifically, Republicans proposed to end the entitlement to cash, impose a five-year time limit on benefits, require mothers to prepare for and search for work or have their cash benefit reduced or terminated, and require states to place half their welfare caseload in programs that lead to employment.
What have been the results? Success.
In the decade that has passed since the 1996 reforms, the welfare rolls have plummeted by nearly 60%, the first sustained decline since the program was enacted in 1935. Equally important, the employment of single mothers heading families reached the highest level ever. As a group, mothers heading families with incomes of less than about $21,000 per year increased their earnings every year between 1994 and 2000 while simultaneously receiving less money from welfare payments. In inflation-adjusted dollars, they were about 25% better off in 2000 than in 1994, despite the fall in their welfare income.
How about poverty? Down.
Over the same period, the child-poverty level enjoyed its most sustained decline since the early 1970s; and both black-child poverty and poverty among female-headed families reached their lowest level ever. Even after four years of increases following the recession of 2001, the child poverty level is still 20% lower than it was before the decline began.
Haskins concludes: The irony of welfare reform is that it firmly implanted the conservative principle of self-sufficiency in federal policy which, in turn, brought the liberal principle of government support for the poor into its most effective form--namely, encouraging work. Above all, welfare reform showed that work--even low-wage work--provides a more durable foundation for social policy than handouts.

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