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WETZSTEIN: Will law stimulate welfare?

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 24, 2009

When President Obama signed the stimulus law recently, he said it marked "the beginning of the end" of our national economic troubles.

I must say, having read some protests about the law, I wondered whether he also meant it was the beginning of the end of welfare reform.

Two of my reliable sources — Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation and Michael Tanner at the Cato Institute — have raised alarms that the new law will take the country back to the bad old days when states got federal dollars for every welfare recipient in their caseload.

I'm not sure the stimulus bill is a "backdoor undoing" of the 1996 welfare reform, as Mr. Tanner says, but I am concerned it will mess with success.

For decades, states sent poor people welfare checks and then asked Washington for a reimbursement. Welfare caseloads grew, since no one was overly motivated to get a job or help anybody get a job.

The 1996 welfare reform threw out that system. Instead, Washington sent each state a fixed-but-fat check for its welfare expenses, and let them figure out how to serve their poor.

If states (wisely) helped their poor populations get jobs and become self-sufficient, states could keep their "excess" welfare funds and use them for other low-income services.

Moreover, the 1996 reform came with a backbone — an unprecedented time limit that said no adult could get more than 60 months of federal welfare checks in his or her lifetime.

The result was stunning. When President Clinton signed welfare reform in August 1996, 12.3 million persons (4.4 million families) drew cash welfare. By December 2007, there were 3.8 million persons (1.6 million families) on public assistance — declines of 69 percent and 64 percent, respectively.

Sharon Parrott of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has written a rebuttal to Mr. Rector and Mr. Tanner's critiques — the stimulus law does not "undermine" welfare reform, she says. Based on these think-tank salvos, I expect welfare debates to mushroom again in Congress.

But I'd like to offer a simple truth about welfare, based on my experience covering welfare since 1994.

Welfare is really an "allowance." Think of Uncle Sam reaching into his big, big pocket and giving you a couple of dollars and some loose change.

Adults cannot live on an allowance. I'll never forget the Camden, N.J., mother of three who told me about her $210 a month in food stamps. "I can eat $210 worth of food stamps all by myself. In a week!" she roared.

Welfare checks have never been something to live on. They've always been "assistance" or "supplements" to other household income. Welfare recipients know this, which is why they have always worked under the table or done other things to "supplement" their welfare.

The 1996 welfare-reform law ended that deceit. Its new message of hope, backed up by the previous White Houses, plus statehouses and school houses, was: Welfare is lame, so go to school, get a degree, get a (real) job and try harder to avoid getting pregnant again.

I, too, am nervous about Congress starting to pay states per head for welfare. But if Congress then seeks to jettison time limits, work rules and other innovations when it renews welfare reform in 2010, it will indeed be a sad "beginning of the end."

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.