Heritage News Forum: New welfare idea slides backwards

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 18, 2002


It’s both amusing and satisfying to re-read the hand-wringing that greeted the 1996 welfare-reform law.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called the law “the moral equivalent of a ‘Dear John’ letter to the poor. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) predicted it would “throw one million people into poverty.” Peter Edelman, who resigned his post as assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services in protest, predicted “more malnutrition and more crime, increased infant mortality, and increased drug and alcohol abuse.”

What’s laughable is the conviction of these comments. In fact, all anyone knew at the time was that the system in place didn’t work. We made some assumptions based on experience about how to fix it. And we waited.

Since then, we’ve seen welfare caseloads cut in half. We’ve seen the number of Americans living in poverty fall from 14 million in 1994 to five million. We’ve seen more than 50 percent of disadvantaged single mothers get jobs (and, thus, opportunities), and poverty rates for single mothers and their children drop to their lowest levels ever. With such results, we’d expect the 1996 approach to be strengthened. We certainly wouldn’t expect it to be weakened.

At issue is the “re-authorization” for the 1996 law, which expires this year. Some in Congress want to continue along the same path, which is fine until we get to the question of what to do about the people the present reforms haven’t reached. Legislation passed by the House of Representatives, and favored by President Bush, would capitalize on this success by calling on states to reduce caseloads 70 percent by 2007, up from 50 percent over the last five years; to increase the work or work-experience requirement from 30 to 40 hours per week; and to encourage unwed parents to marry.

The legislation would reward states that reduce caseloads, because it sees the goal as moving people off welfare. It ups the work requirement, because more work means more money and responsibility for workers. And it encourages marriage, because a growing body of social-science research shows that children of intact families earn more, learn more, get in trouble less and fare better in school.

But a proposal in the Senate – the Work, Opportunity and Resposibility for Kids Act – seems designed to abandon the principles that brought such success. The WORK Act would eliminate the five-year limit on receiving welfare benefits and permit those who refuse to work to receive benefits indefinitely. It also would reward states with your tax dollars for putting more people on welfare, adding $10 billion to the cost over the next five years.

As the debate continues, you’ll probably hear how the president’s approach won’t work. Remember: That’s what they said last time.

EDWIN FEULNER is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.