NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Welfare Reform's Successes

May 13, 2002

As Congress prepares to re-authorize the 1996 welfare reform act, observers point out that the best measure of its immense success is the debate that isn't taking place. They contrast today's conventional wisdom with the dire predictions that greeted passage of the bill six years ago.

  • The Children's Defense Fund predicted a 12 percent increase in child poverty.
  • The Urban Institute in a widely cited analysis said the law would push 2.6 million people -- including 1.1 million children -- into poverty.
  • Then-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it "the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction."
  • The Republican Congress had to pass the bill three times amid these portents of doom before Bill Clinton would sign it, and even then half the Democrats in the House opposed it.

Of course, Armageddon didn't arrive. Since the bill's enactment:

  • Welfare caseloads have been cut by more than half, to their lowest level since the mid-1960s.
  • Poverty is down dramatically, and Census figures show 4.2 million fewer Americans living in poverty today than in 1996.
  • The greatest decreases in poverty have been among black children, with 1.1 million fewer living below the poverty line, the lowest rate in U.S. history.

The strong economy played a role, observers acknowledge, but the 1980s were also boom years, and the welfare rolls increased during that decade. Welfare reform changed the incentives for both the poor and the social services bureaucracy -- along the way repudiating 30 years of social policy that left millions of poor Americans in a vicious cycle of dependency and fostered an array of social ills.

Source: Editorial, "The Welfare Watershed," Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2002.


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