February 27, 2009
By Stuart M. Butler, Ph.D.
It was the "end of welfare as we know it." Those were the
triumphant words of then-President Clinton as he signed the
bipartisan welfare-reform bill of 1996.
That reform established work requirements for able-bodied
welfare recipients and for the public welfare industry itself.
Recipients able to work would have to perform some form of labor
for at least 20 to 30 hours a week - no more something-for-nothing.
And states had to implement work, training and education programs
to help move people off the dole and onto payrolls.
The bill transformed a major part of the welfare system from one
of perpetual handouts to a temporary "helping hand" designed to
lift recipients from poverty to self-sufficiency. To keep people
from spending a lifetime on welfare, the reform set a five-year
limit on benefits. And states that failed to help people get off
welfare faced the loss of federal funds.
The results have been dramatic. welfare rolls have more than
halved since the reform. The number of children in poverty has
dropped by 1.6 million. And real work has given dignity and purpose
to millions who once languished in crushing dependency.
But the 1996 reform was only a start. It took the first steps on
a new road. It treated the problem of structural family poverty.
Now is the time for a sequel to the 1996 reform to cure the
Unfortunately Congress' "stimulus" legislation is a major step
backward that will swell welfare rolls anew. It created a new
entitlement that pays states to increase the welfare caseload,
rather than shrink it. And it sharply reduces the work requirements
states must implement.
Looking at these perverse incentives to increase the number of
people on the dole, my Heritage colleague Robert Rector declared
"welfare reform has ended."
Lawmakers who really believe in independence, not dependency,
must reverse these damaging changes. Otherwise, they will condemn
more families to the humiliation of open-ended welfare
But then we must move forward to a new phase of welfare reform
that builds on 1996 and tackles the root causes. What will that
First, the 1996 reforms applied only to part of the welfare
structure in America. There are more than 50 other means-tested
federal programs that were hardly touched by welfare reform. These
include food stamps and Section 8 housing vouchers. State
accountability and work requirements need to be extended to all
these programs to provide the same incentives for independence.
But second, there must be national effort, led by President
Obama, to tackle the collapse of marriage in vulnerable
communities. That is the single-biggest cause of child poverty and
welfare dependency. And that is why it must be the core of welfare
reform - Phase two.
In the early 1960s, just 7 percent of American children were
born outside wedlock. Today it is 38 percent, and among blacks it
is a staggering 69 percent.
That´s a recipe for disaster. Two-thirds of poor children
live in single-parent homes. And when compared with children in
two-parent homes, these children are far more likely to fail in
school, have emotional problems, get into trouble with the law, and
get pregnant as teens and end up on welfare themselves. It´s
a vicious circle.
So it´s time for another rescue package. For the American
family. But not one that costs billions - one that actually saves
billions while saving children and young adults from a life on
Mr. Obama understands the problem, and he needs to take the
To do that he should use the bully pulpit of the presidency to
reaffirm the central importance of the family as the most effective
economic and social tool we have to defeat poverty. In particular,
he should lead a national effort within the black community, where
the collapse of family has been catastrophic.
He should direct agencies within his administration to push
forward with marriage education in our high schools and for couples
in low-income communities, where the consequences of non-marriage
are more severe.
And he should press Congress to reduce the anti-marriage
penalties still remaining in welfare programs such as food stamps,
Medicaid and public housing, where getting married can reduce
eligibility or benefits.
Sometimes we actually do things right in America. The national
debate about welfare dependency in the 1980s and 1990s led to a
landmark change that partly fixed a broken welfare system -- one
that was actually harming those it was supposed to help. Now we
must complete the task by fixing a broken marriage system.
Butler is vice president for domestic policy issues
for the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times
It was the "end of welfare as we know it." Those were the triumphant words of then-President Clinton as he signed the bipartisan welfare-reform bill of 1996.
Stuart M. Butler, Ph.D.
Distinguished Fellow and Director, Center for Policy Innovation
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