Monday, August 21, 2006

Ten years ago tomorrow, President Clinton signed the landmark welfare-reform law in a Rose Garden ceremony as beaming Republican and Democratic co-authors looked on. Outside the White House, hundreds of liberal anti-poverty advocates protested what they called Mr. Clinton’s betrayal of poor children, and several Clinton administration leaders quit in protest.

As the next stage of welfare reform begins Oct. 1, with the start of the new fiscal year, there are fewer public protests and less talk about poor children forced to sleep on city grates. But there is still high anxiety in some quarters over new welfare rules, which were signed into law in February by President Bush.

Reform supporters say the new rules “reboot” the system and will lead to even greater achievements in promoting work and stable family relationships, including marriage.

New “common sense” work definitions will steer more adults toward preparing for work, searching for work or landing jobs — “the only activities that can lead you not just out of welfare dependency, but out of poverty as well,” said Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary for children and families in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

New $150 million-a-year funding streams for family strengthening are both a welfare-prevention and welfare-intervention strategy, added Mr. Horn. “When children are born in the context of a stable and healthy marriage, they are significantly less likely to be poor and significantly less likely to be in need of welfare.”

But others think the new reforms still miss the mark. The new work rules disallow seeking a four-year college degree as a “core” work activity, said Barbara Gault, vice president and director of research at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR).

This is “very, very disappointing” as “higher education is the strongest route” out of poverty and low-wage jobs, she said, noting that a recent IWPR study found that low-income women who finished college raised their median incomes from $7.50 an hour to $13.14 an hour and often found careers in business, health care and social work.

A “welfare victory lap” is undeserved, Rep. Jim McDermott, Washington Democrat, told a recent hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee. Republicans shouldn’t be celebrating welfare reform while there is stagnation in the value of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the minimum wage and spending on work supports for single mothers, he said.

Looking back, America’s disenchantment with the 1960s “War on Poverty” programs reached its zenith in the 1990s. Despite the programs’ good intentions, grinding poverty, unemployment and low wages — especially among minority males — as well as crime, substance abuse and unwed childbearing grew unabated.

The average stay on welfare was eight years, with many mothers relying on welfare checks for 13 years, studies found. Tales of fraud, abuse and indolent, baby-making “welfare queens” abounded, as did complaints about the skyrocketing costs of welfare.

Welfare reform was a perennial legislative issue during the 1980s and 1990s, but no matter what Congress did, caseloads grew, peaking at 14.2 million people in 1994. A watershed moment came when Mr. Clinton offered his 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.” Momentum was also building in the states, where dozens of governors, led by Wisconsin’s Gov. Tommy Thompson, were using federal waivers to revamp their welfare programs.

Mr. Clinton’s initial welfare reform — which would have cost an extra $9 billion — fell to the wayside. House Republicans seized the moment and included welfare reform in their Contract With America, the banner under which the party swept into power in 1994.

The resulting 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act passed with strong bipartisan support and was signed by Mr. Clinton on Aug. 22, after having vetoed two earlier versions.

Under the 1996 law, states received fixed (rather than unlimited) federal funds in exchange for flexibility in designing their own welfare programs within federal guidelines. There was a new five-year limit on federal welfare checks and a mandate for states to assist welfare recipients to prepare for, find and keep jobs — or lose their benefits. “Work first” was the new mantra.

The welfare caseload plummeted by more than 60 percent or nearly 10 million people. As of December 2005, which ended the first quarter of fiscal 2006, the caseload stood at 4.3 million recipients and 1.8 million families, according to HHS.

Republicans and their allies are proud of the 1996 reform, which has also resulted in a lower rate of child poverty and higher rate of employment among single mothers. The welfare-reform debate showed “how ‘we the people’ can bring about profound change that dramatically improves the lives of millions of our fellow citizens,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told the recent Ways and Means hearing.

Before 1996, unwed childbearing rates were growing at a rate that would have taken them to 42 percent of all live births by 2003, Heritage Foundation welfare analyst Robert Rector said in his House hearing testimony. However, the welfare debate, with its focus on personal responsibility, work and time-limited welfare, helped slow the growth of the illegitimacy rate, he said. Today, just under 35 percent of births are out of wedlock, a relatively modest increase compared with the 32 percent figure in 1996.

Brookings Institution scholar Ron Haskins, a former Republican House staff member who has written a new book about his front-row seat at the welfare debates, noted that the 1996 reform also strengthened child-support enforcement, expanded funding for abstinence education, made it easier for faith-based groups to provide welfare services and ended welfare checks to newly arrived immigrants as well as to prisoners and substance abusers.

“Taken together, these reforms constitute the most fundamental change in American social policy since the Social Security Act of 1935,” Mr. Haskins wrote in “Work Over Welfare: The Inside Story of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law.”

Not everyone, however, views the 1996 law as an unbridled success, nor do they see improved benefits for poor people in the new reforms, which were passed as part of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005.

At the Ways and Means hearing, Mr. McDermott and his colleagues pointed out that child-poverty rates have started to climb since 2000. Many mothers who have left the welfare rolls are “not better off” — they’re standing in lines at churches, getting food and services to support their families, said Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Ohio Democrat.

The welfare system has become difficult for poor families to enter — “more families are falling into the ‘no work, no welfare’ category,” said Sharon Parrott of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Other critics fault the 1996 law for chasing poor women out of schools and into low-paying jobs while their children are sent into low-quality child care. Child-care funding is woefully inadequate — only one in seven eligible children receives subsidies, warn groups such as the Center for Law and Social Policy and the Children’s Defense Fund.

Amid the policy debates, welfare mothers such as Yolanda Britt continue their day-by-day fight to achieve self-sufficiency.

Miss Britt, 35 and the mother of three, entered the District’s welfare system in 2002 after leaving an abusive relationship. She has finished classes in medical administration at the So Others Might Eat’s Center for Employment Training and expects to be employed soon and off welfare within the year.

Miss Britt never experienced the “unlimited” welfare of the old system, but says she doesn’t mind that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits are limited. “Temporary is just that,” she said. “I know that it’s going to end.”

She is grateful for the many efforts aimed at helping her leave welfare and get a good job. “Nothing is more gratifying than to walk into a grocery story with my own money, rather than a TANF card,” she said.

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