Welfare-Reform Critics Were Wrong
Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., apparently was in no
mood to mince words that day in 1996 when he described the
welfare-reform bill that had just been enacted by a Republican
Congress and a Democratic president.
Requiring welfare recipients to work and limiting the length of
time they could collect benefits added up to "the most brutal act
of social policy since Reconstruction," he said. "Those involved
will take this disgrace to their graves."
Moynihan was hardly alone. Marian Wright Edelman, president of the
Children's Defense Fund, proclaimed the legislation "an outrage
… that will hurt and impoverish millions of American
children." Her husband, Peter Edelman, then an assistant secretary
for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human
Services, resigned in protest and wrote an article for The
titled "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has
Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women,
said the law would "place 12.8 million people on welfare at risk of
sinking further into poverty and homelessness," a charge echoed in
numerous newspaper editorials.
So as Congress prepares to reauthorize the law, it's time to ask:
How have these predictions fared?
Fortunately, not well at all. Census Bureau data show substantial
declines in child poverty in the United States, especially among
the two groups most affected by welfare reform: children of single
mothers and black children.
The improvement in black child poverty has been dramatic. During
the quarter century before welfare reform, black child poverty
rates remained essentially flat. In 1995, the last year before
welfare reform, the rate was 41.5 percent. This was slightly higher
than the rate was in 1971, when it stood at 40.4 percent
After welfare reform, the black child poverty rate began dropping
at a sharp and unprecedented rate, falling to 30 percent in 2001.
Today, despite the sluggish economy, black child poverty is at the
lowest level in national history.
The poverty rate for single-mother families shows a similar
pattern. For more than two decades before welfare reform, we saw
little net change. After reform, poverty fell among these families
fell from 50.3 percent in 1995 to 39.8 percent in 2001. Even
saddled with a recession, the poverty rate that year for children
in single-mother families was at its lowest point in U.S.
What about child hunger? The Children's Defense Fund said welfare
reform would "make children hungrier." Peter Edelman predicted more
"malnutrition." Yet the numbers here have been cut roughly in half,
with Agriculture Department data showing that in 1995, the year
before welfare reform, 887,000 children were hungry; by 2001, the
number had fallen to 467,000. That's still too many, but it's a far
cry from what critics predicted.
Didn't any numbers go up? Sure -- employment figures. And they went
up the most among "disadvantaged" mothers. Employment for
never-married mothers has jumped by nearly 50 percent since the
mid-1990s. The number of single mothers with jobs but no high
school diploma has risen by two-thirds, while employment among
young single mothers (between the ages of 18 and 24) has nearly
There's a simple explanation, some critics reply -- the economy.
Former welfare recipients naturally succeeded while it was
improving. But while a strong economy undoubtedly helped, research
shows that state welfare reform policies played a much larger
Indeed, a recent study, by Rebecca Blank, a former member of the
Council of Economic Advisers in the Clinton administration, shows a
direct link between state welfare reform policies and rising
incomes among poor families. Blank found that s tates with welfare
reform programs that offered "strong work incentives" showed
greater increases in the income of single parents with children
than did states with weak work incentives.
Besides, similar economic expansions before 1996 did nothing to cut
welfare rolls, and our current economic woes have slowed but not
stopped the progress made by reform.
But that doesn't mean the current law is beyond improvement.
Congress should strengthen federal work requirements; about half of
the 2 million mothers who get a TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy
Families) check are idle, despite being able-bodied. Lawmakers also
can strengthen marriage among the poor, which a wealth of social
science research proves is the best way to cut poverty among
children and boost their well-being.
If lawmakers take this advice, expect to hear more hysterical
predictions among the naysayers. And count on them being just as
Robert Rector is a senior research fellow at The
Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public
policy research institute.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire