September 26, 2002 | Commentary on Welfare and Welfare Spending

A Time for Choosing

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 1 million people into poverty." Peter Edelman, who resigned his post as an 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 and hoped.

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 5 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 "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. Research shows more than four out of five of them are employable, but lax work requirements in some states and resistance to enforcing the rules in others have shortchanged the reforms.

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 married families earn more, learn more, get in trouble less and fare better in school.

But a proposal in the Senate-the Work, Opportunity and Responsibility for Kids (WORK) 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, not less, adding $10 billion to the cost over the next five years.

Worse, if this approach wins out, we will have rejected the notion that less people should be on welfare, not more; that recipients should have to "earn" their benefits; and that healthy marriages promote healthier, more successful children.

As the debate continues, you'll hear how those still on welfare need training and should not be forced into the workplace. Remember: Their earnings increase more than twice as much if they go straight to work. You'll hear calls for mercy because those still on welfare can't work. Remember: More than 85 percent of the "virtually unemployable" are, in fact, employed. You'll hear that, of course states whose caseloads go up need more money. Remember: No principle of the 1996 law did more to decrease caseloads than removing the incentive to increase them.

And you'll probably hear how the president's approach won't work. Remember: That's what they said last time.


Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D., is president of The Heritage Foundation (, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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