Ten years ago next month, a bipartisan majority in Congress and a Democratic president launched America’s welfare policy in a new and largely uncharted direction.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the predictions of doom hurled against the Republican welfare reform bill signed by President Clinton on Aug. 22, 1996. Mr. Clinton had previously vetoed two versions of welfare reform when, with skill, daring and persistence, Republicans in the House and Senate pushed it through Congress a third time and put it again on the president’s desk. In an act of remarkable political courage, Mr. Clinton defied senior members of his own party and most of the American left and signed the radical bill into law.
The left, led by senior Democrats in Congress, the editorial pages of many of the nation’s leading newspapers, the Catholic bishops, child advocates in Washington and the professoriate, had assaulted the bill in terms that are rare, even by today’s coarse standards. Democrats speaking on the floor of the House labeled the bill “harsh,” “cruel” and “mean-spirited.” They claimed that it “attacked,” “punished” and “lashed out at” children. Columnist Bob Herbert said the bill conducted a “jihad” against the poor, made “war on kids” and “deliberately inflict[ed] harm” on children and the poor. Sen. Frank Lautenberg said poor children would be reduced to “begging for money, begging for food, and . . . engaging in prostitution.”
Many Democrats and pundits shouted that the bill would throw a million children into poverty. Marion Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund said that no one who believed in the Judeo-Christian tradition could support the bill. Even God, it seemed, opposed the evil Republican bill.
The major reform that evoked this onslaught was the proposal to end the entitlement, or legal guarantee of cash benefits, promised by the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. Kate O’Beirne, now of National Review, perfectly captured the philosophy of entitlement in 1995 testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, saying that the nation’s welfare system operated on the principle of “spend more, demand less.” Republicans wanted to demand more by breaking the entitlement and making the cash contingent on serious attempts to find work and achieve self-support.
After three decades of failed federal “work” programs, Republicans had spent years behind the scenes–under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, Clay Shaw, Rick Santorum, Jim Talent and others–developing ideas about how to encourage, cajole or, when necessary, force mothers on welfare to work. Specifically, Republicans proposed to end the entitlement to cash, impose a five-year time limit on benefits, require mothers to prepare for and search for work or have their cash benefit reduced or terminated, and require states to place half their welfare caseload in programs that lead to employment. . . .
In the decade that has passed since the 1996 reforms, the welfare rolls have plummeted by nearly 60%, the first sustained decline since the program was enacted in 1935. Equally important, the employment of single mothers heading families reached the highest level ever. As a group, mothers heading families with incomes of less than about $21,000 per year increased their earnings every year between 1994 and 2000 while simultaneously receiving less money from welfare payments. In inflation-adjusted dollars, they were about 25% better off in 2000 than in 1994, despite the fall in their welfare income.
You mean personal responsibility actually works? Holding people responsible for their own actions isn’t actually cruel but rather serves as a motivator to get them back to helping themselves once again?
This is going to knock some liberals I know for a loop.
Read the whole thing.