August 17, 2006

August 17, 2006 | Commentary on

History proves new welfare reform will be successful

Many states are upset with Uncle Sam these days. Seems they don't like being pushed to achieve reasonable goals.

Starting Oct. 1, the federal government will demand that states meet new standards for helping people get off welfare. In order to keep receiving federal money, states will need to make sure at least half of their welfare recipients find jobs or at least search for work rigorously.

Predictably, many bureaucrats are unhappy. "States are kind of in a low-grade panic," Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution told the Washington Post. "We expected the [rules] to be bad," added Robin Arnold-Williams, an official with Washington state's department of social and health services. "They are worse than that."

But we can expect the new rules to be successful precisely because they require positive behavior from welfare recipients. History proves that.

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The law's convoluted title hid a simple purpose: Move people from welfare to work.

In that summer, a decade ago, there was plenty of hot rhetoric about why the law's work requirements wouldn't work. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called the measure "the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction." Peter Edelman, an assistant secretary at the department of Health and Human Services, resigned, predicting, "There will be more malnutrition and more crime, increased infant mortality, and increased drug and alcohol abuse."

Of course, the exact opposite happened. Child poverty has plunged, with 1.6 million fewer children living in poverty today than there were in 1995. No surprise, really: The surest way out of poverty is work, and under the 1996 law, welfare caseloads fell by 60 percent as millions of parents took jobs.

At the same time, more poor people started taking responsibility for their lives. In 1995 just about one of every three children was born out of wedlock, up from roughly one of 15 in 1965. That explosive growth in out-of-wedlock births stopped with the 1996 reform. Today's rate of illegitimate births is virtually the same as it was a decade ago. It's still way too high, but at least the explosive growth has stopped.

Unfortunately, most of the gains from welfare reform happened in the first five years. Having been pushed by the federal government to move people off the dole, states responded quickly. But by 2001, most had met Washington's initial requirements. Without ongoing federal standards, most state reform efforts lost steam. Too many state bureaucracies drifted back into the habit of mailing welfare checks without pressing recipients to find work.

The new rules are designed to jump-start the reform process. In fact, the "new" work rules aren't new at all; they simply restore the work rules of the 1996 welfare reform to their original form. So states will again have to scramble to reduce dependence and place recipients in jobs. State welfare agencies, never the most energized of institutions, don't like this. But, as the saying goes, "he who pays the piper calls the tune," and since the federal government pays for most welfare costs, it can and should set the standards.

The fact is, the tough-love formula of the original welfare reform works. Dr. Rebecca Blank, once an economic adviser to President Clinton, examined the link between welfare reform and child poverty. Her studies show that states with welfare-reform programs that offer "strong work incentives" see greater increases in the income of single parents with children than states with weak work incentives do. She also found that states with strict time limits and strong penalties were more successful in raising the incomes of poor children than states with lenient policies.

There's some grumbling in state capitals now (just like a decade ago). But in 10 years we can expect celebrations, such as the ones we're now enjoying for the once-controversial 1996 welfare-reform law.

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (, a Washington-based public policy research institute and co-author of the new book Getting America Right.

About the Author

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

First Appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times