March 5, 2009 | Commentary on Welfare and Welfare Spending

Rolling Back Welfare Reform

There are many disturbing features to the "stimulus" bill recently signed into law -- its massive $787 billion price tag, the fact that it empowers a more intrusive and expansive government, its countless millions for wasteful pet projects.

But the repeal of many sensible welfare reform policies stands out as especially egregious. The bill could undo the bipartisan work of the last 15 years to curb government dependency. It could roll back one of the greatest legislative triumphs of our time.

In its haste to meet an arbitrary deadline, Congress voted on a massive, 1,000-plus page bill in the course of 48 hours. That's fast, especially by congressional standards. The stimulus bill is also the most expensive spending bill in our country's history. And with our country already facing record deficits, it's likely that our children and grandchildren will still be paying off the stimulus bill decades from now.

As if the price tag and the amount of debt our country is leaving future generations weren't bad enough, the inability of so many of the bill's authors to resist injecting politics in the process is particularly disconcerting.

The rewriting of many of the 1996 welfare reforms perfectly illustrates how politicians are willing to attach unrelated provisions to any bill that's virtually guaranteed to be signed into law.

The undoing of welfare reform is particularly difficult to stomach when considering where we've been, and the important headway we were making to curb the danger of making free citizens dependent on government.

Beginning in the late 1960s, during President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and his War on poverty, the federal government (under both Republican and Democratic administrations) has spent trillions of dollars trying to eradicate hunger and homelessness. Unfortunately, "you get what you pay for," and many of these programs -- by paying people to remain on the dole -- created incentives for many to remain poor and abuse the system.

Thus the federal government's War on poverty actually led to an increase in poverty, due in large part to a rise in divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births. Instead of encouraging people to work, the outdated and misguided welfare programs actually encouraged unwed mothers to have more children so they could receive bigger paychecks from Washington.

By the early 1990s, it was clear that dramatic changes were necessary to curb government dependency and encourage people to empower themselves by rejoining the workforce. As a step toward these goals, Democratic President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (passed by a Republican Congress) in 1996 after years of hard work and negotiations.

Despite admonitions by many, the act proved a resounding success. According to congressional testimony in 2006 by my colleague Robert Rector (a key author of the legislation), "the poverty rate for children of single mothers fell at a dramatic rate of 50.3 percent from 1995 to 41.9 percent in 2004. And the explosive growth of out-of-wedlock childbearing has come to a near standstill."

Unfortunately, that progress is now at risk.

Tucked away in the massive "stimulus" bill is a provision that says, "the federal government will actually begin paying states bonuses to increase their welfare caseloads." This is precisely the sort of perverse incentive likely to prompt more people to enroll in welfare, taking us back to the bad old days of dependency.

There's little doubt we're facing difficult times. But we shouldn't turn to failed policies of the past that have done more to hurt than help America's most needy.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Israel Ortega Contributor, The Foundry
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First Appeared in el Diario (NY)