- - Friday, July 27, 2012

President Johnson declared a War on Poverty in 1964. Over the subsequent three decades, the federal government created a maze of welfare programs to distribute a growing mountain of taxpayer money. But year after year, poverty seemed to win the war.

In 1996, conservatives forced President Clinton to try a new approach. Our welfare reforms replaced a failed New Deal program with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Conservatives built TANF around two simple ideas: States would get a level, predictable amount of funding with the flexibility to use it as they thought best. In return, able-bodied adults getting TANF checks would have to work, look for work, take classes or otherwise prepare themselves to regain their independence.

On one hand, we gave states the freedom to experiment and innovate. On the other, we expressed tough love that encourages people to take responsibility for their lives. The formula succeeded even beyond expectations.

Unfortunately, we never used the TANF model to reform the rest of welfare. Down 10-0, conservatives scored one goal and high-fived all the way to the locker room. Meanwhile, liberals spent the next 16 years trying to undo the accomplishments of 1996. The latest attack came just recently, when the Obama administration conjured an illegitimate legal excuse for rolling back TANF’s work requirements.

It’s time for conservatives to get back in the game.

The American welfare state has failed the poor. It has squandered decades, dollars and good intentions, while families and communities have suffered the consequences. Liberals only offer more of the same. We can do better.

Because the best help comes as people help themselves, we should expand the TANF work requirements to other areas of welfare. There’s a reason Habitat for Humanity requires families to put in hundreds of hours of sweat equity before getting a new home. The things we earn are the things we value most.

Right now, federal welfare includes at least 10 programs for housing, seven for medical assistance and 17 for food and nutrition. We also have multiple programs for job training, cash assistance and education. Altogether, at least 70 programs cost state and federal taxpayers around $1 trillion per year.

This bloated maze is good for bureaucrats but not for the families stuck in the system. So let’s simplify it. Instead of 70 efforts with poor results, let’s just have a few that actually work. We’d save money and even help grow our economy as more families move from welfare to financial independence. As in 1996, Congress should block-grant the funds to states and let them innovate. Grass-roots organizations and state and local leaders know better than Congress what works in their communities.

The Republican Study Committee, the home for conservatives in the House, already has begun advancing legislation along these lines. But fighting poverty does not just mean designing more effective welfare. We need to fight the causes of welfare dependence, and many times the answer lies outside of Washington.

Private organizations across the country do amazing work without the federal government running the show. We recently visited George Wythe High School in Richmond, where the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE) runs a mentoring program for at-risk youngsters. Youth advisers, most from troubled backgrounds themselves, are available 24/7 to help students stay on the right track. George Wythe used to be the most violence- and crime-ridden school in the city. After just two years, the school reported a 26 percent drop in fighting, a 68 percent decline in truancy and 63 percent fewer dropouts.

Children who spend years in bad schools or lost in the foster care system have higher odds of criminal convictions and relying on welfare. Those problems won’t be solved by throwing more money into failing programs. We need to get government out of the way and empower people. Every family should enjoy the opportunity for school choice. Private organizations that can help more children find caring homes should get the chance.

Conservative reformers have natural allies in groups like CNE and the families they help. Their hopes, dreams and frustrations with today’s ineffective liberal welfare state are no different from our own. They understand that no government check can replace earned success and supportive relationships. So let’s reach out, hear their solutions and work together to fight poverty.

Rep. Jim Jordan is an Ohio Republican and chairman of the Republican Study Committee. Rep. Steve Southerland II is a Florida Republican.

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