Welfare Reform Has Worked, Don't Mess with SuccessCommentary by Pete du Pont
March 21, 2002
The professional welfare class -- not the people on welfare, but politicians, academics and activists with a vested interest in perpetuating dependency on government -- are preparing to undo one of the most successful public policy reforms of the 1990s.
In 1996, Republicans in Congress presented legislation to then-President Clinton that fulfilled his 1992 rhetorical campaign promise "to end welfare as we know it." As a matter of policy, Clinton had actually proposed to change welfare from a base entitlement to a taxpayer-subsidized job. Nevertheless, after twice vetoing the Republican measure, Clinton finally signed the bill, to the dismay of welfare advocates in and out of his administration. In fact, three administration officials resigned in protest, and pundits predicted it would lead to widespread destitution.
The 1996 law was a historic accomplishment as for the first time in our government's history it ended a federal entitlement. More importantly, it took a new tack in providing assistance to the less fortunate. The law ended "Aid to Families with Dependent Children" (AFDC), a relief program from the Roosevelt era that provided cash assistance to families (headed largely by single, never-married mothers) on the condition that they not work. In its place, it provided a block grant to the states, called "Temporary Assistance to Needy Families" (TANF). TANF provides just as much federal funding as the previous program, but it includes two basic requirements: after a maximum of two years on welfare, these nondisabled, young adults should find work; and after a maximum of five years, they should get off welfare.
The need for change was great, as the old program was clearly not working. In the 1960s, the welfare rolls rose dramatically, and despite several reform attempts and spells of full employment, never came down to previous levels. At the highest point of the caseload, in 1994, five and a half percent of the population was on AFDC.
TANF, by contrast, has been a resounding success. Between passage of the reform law and June 2001, the number of families on welfare declined by 53 percent. In some states, the welfare rolls fell by 70 percent. And despite the up tick in unemployment last year, caseloads continued to drop in a number of states.
One of the most important success stories of TANF, however, has been its impact on women on welfare. Most of the women who left welfare have gone to work. In fact, the proportion of single mothers who work has increased dramatically, according to a study by economists June O'Neill, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, and Anne Hill, since welfare reform caused more than half of the decline in welfare participation since 1996 and more than 60 percent of the rise in employment among single mothers. By contrast, the effect of the booming economy was relatively minor, accounting for less than 20 percent of either change.
The report, published by the Women in the Economy project of the NCPA, also shows that the decline in welfare receipt and increases in employment has been greatest for the most disadvantaged women -- high school dropouts, mothers of young children, never-wed mothers and ethnic minorities. For instance, welfare reform accounts for 40 percent of the increase in work by single mothers who are high school dropouts, 71 percent of the increase in work by 18- to 29-year-old single mothers, and 83 percent of the increase in work by black single mothers.
Why has welfare reform been so successful? The reforms changed the culture of both recipients and caseworkers from an entitlement mentality to a "work first" philosophy. Where previous reform efforts added all sorts of long-term training and career development programs that rarely ended in a job, TANF emphasizes short-term job search assistance that encouraged people to find employment quickly.
As Ronald Reagan put it, "The best antipoverty program ever devised is a job." According to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, since 1996, American families with incomes below the federal poverty level decreased from 13.7 percent to 11.3 percent; and children living in poverty fell from 20.5 percent to 16.2 percent.
TANF has to be reauthorized by September 2002, giving the welfare professionals and their congressional allies the chance to "improve" the program with the types of reforms that haven't work before. It would be better if Congress just re-passed the law as is, without messing with success.