- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2003

In 1965, the federal government, in its “War on Poverty,” began paying very substantial cash and benefit packages to lower- income Americans. This impulse to help was a good thing, but there was a catch to it; the government required, as a condition of public assistance, that recipients not engage in the private activities that traditionally get people out of poverty.

The two best anti-poverty programs are work and marriage, and the government withdrew its assistance from any poor person who openly engaged in either of these activities. To put it bluntly, the “Great Society” implemented by the 1960s liberals was one where the government supported poor young women, but only if they never had a job themselves, never got married, and raised their children without a father even contributing to the support or nurture of the family.

Unsurprisingly, this experiment turned out to be a massive failure. The poverty rate, which had steadily declined after World War II until it reached 15 percent in 1965, remained at that level for the next 30 years. Moreover, by 1995, poverty was more entrenched and intractable than ever before; the great engine of American economic mobility had stalled because the anti-work, anti-marriage welfare system had contributed to the destruction of families and neighborhoods in lower-income America. What the “Great Society” produced was not a reduction in poverty but a massive increase in the out-of- wedlock birthrate, which rose from 6 percent in 1965 to 32 percent in 1995. In neighborhoods dominated by the welfare system, the out of wedlock birthrate is far higher than in those not dominated by the welfare system.

Long after it became evident to everyone else that the system was hurting people, the liberals fought a rearguard action to preserve it. For this they have to accept responsibility. But by the mid-1990s, the failures of the system were so evident throughout America that the pressure for reform was irresistible.

In 1996, Congress replaced the old system, which had punished work and marriage, with one that required work, and defined success by how many people got off welfare, rather than by how many people got on welfare. The result astounded even those of us who believed most strongly in reform. Since the reform was enacted, 4.7 million Americans have moved from welfare dependency to self-sufficiency, and the welfare caseload has declined by 54 percent. The poverty rate for African-American children has fallen to the lowest point in U.S. history. In fact, even as the economy has struggled, and unemployment rates have increased, welfare caseloads have continued to decline.

As anyone in social work knows, welfare is about people and people are complex. No one answer fits everyone. But complex answers stand on the shoulders of simple truths about life, and as Congress prepares the next step in welfare reform, it is absolutely essential that we go back to the first principles of welfare reform and get them right. If the history of modern welfare has proven anything, it has proven that work, marriage and responsibility are good things for families, rich or poor. The system that punished those things was a massive, cruel failure. In contrast, welfare programs that rely on and reward those things offer hope and opportunity for those who participate in them.

On Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee will mark up a new welfare reform bill. There are of course many important issues the committee will work on, but the three non-negotiables of welfare reform should be the following: increased confidence in and reliance upon work, encouraging healthy marriage and honest measures for holding the system accountable.

Most able-bodied Americans who are supporting a family expect to work at least 40 hours each week. That ought to be the goal for welfare recipients as well. Yet, current law allows the work standard to be met with only 30 hours of productive activity, including 20 hours of active work each week.

This was an important first step, but we can do better. The new law should require the states to increase the work standard to 40 hours per week for able-bodied adults. To ensure that participants have the time to improve their job and life skills, “work” should be defined as at least 24 hours on the job along with 16 hours each week of other productive activity, like education and job training.

Welfare reform has always recognized that, even with subsidized job training, day care, transportation and other benefits, some on welfare are not ready for employment. For this reason, the current law allows states to exempt entirely from the work requirement up to 50 percent of the caseload. The new law should challenge the states to help at least 70 percent of those on welfare meet the work standard by the year 2008.

The new law should be forthright in support of healthy marriages. Some will claim that healthy marriage is of no benefit to kids or is a practical impossibility for people on welfare. They said the same thing about work in 1996. But there is no reason why most poor women, if given the option, would not make the same choice most other women make when they have children — to try to raise their kids with the benefit of a healthy marriage. The new law should encourage and fund community-based programs that counsel young women about the benefits of healthy marriage and help them and their children’s father build relationship, parenting and communications skills.

Finally, the new bill should include an honest system of accountability for the states. Ideally, the new law should challenge the states to help at least 70 percent of those on welfare meet the work standard by the year 2008. If this goal is unattainable, then the Senate should openly lower it to whatever standard is acceptable. The public should watch carefully for attempts to lower the 70 percent work standard through misdirection.

For example, one proposal would exempt families with kids under six from being counted as part of the caseload for the purpose of determining whether states have met the work requirement. These families represent approximately 50 percent of the national caseload. So by excluding 50 percent of the caseload from the work requirements, the 70 percent participation goal we want the states to achieve is reduced by half, transforming it into a 35 percent goal, depriving 65 percent of the benefits of work, a key principle to the reform’s success.

More than any other measure of the 1990s, welfare reform represented a powerful new vision of charity and social service in America. Social welfare doesn’t have to mean forcing countercultural values on vulnerable people through all-powerful federal bureaucracies. It is possible for the government to help people, by relying upon traditional values and empowering community organizations to help their neighbors. Welfare reform proves that this approach, and only this approach, works. President Bush has proposed legislation based on these principles, and the House passed a good bill. The question now is whether the Senate will join them in building on the success of the last six years.

Sen. Jim Talent, Missouri Republican, introduced President Bush’s welfare reform reauthorization plan, the Compassion and Personal Responsibility Act of 2003 (S. 5).

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