September 5, 2001

September 5, 2001 | News Releases on Welfare and Welfare Spending

Critics Wrong Anout Welfare Reform, Analysts Say

WASHINGTON, Sep. 5, 2001-When legislation overhauling the nation's welfare system was enacted five years ago, critics attacked it in particularly harsh terms.

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, charged that this "awful" policy would do "serious injury to American children." Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., called it "the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction." Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization of Women, said the law would "place 12.8 million people on welfare at risk of sinking further into poverty and homelessness."

Yet the law not only has defied these predictions, it has substantially reduced poverty by every measure, according to Patrick Fagan, a family expert at The Heritage Foundation, and Robert Rector, one of the nation's top experts on child poverty and a leading architect of the bill President Clinton signed in 1996.

Since then, Fagan and Rector say in a new Heritage paper, overall poverty, child poverty and black child poverty have decreased significantly. Welfare caseloads have been cut in half, and the explosive growth of out-of-wedlock child bearing has come to a virtual halt.

"Even before the law passed, the public debate about welfare reform sent a strong symbolic message that, in the future, welfare would be time-limited and single mothers would be expected to work and be self-reliant," Rector says. "Looking at the numbers, it's clear: Much remains to be done, but we've made a good start."

Rather than forcing 2.6 million people into poverty, as critics predicted, the reforms have helped move 4.2 million out. Today, 2.3 million fewer children live in poverty than did in 1996.

Poverty among black children stands at an all-time low, Fagan and Rector say. Hunger among children has been almost halved, from 4.4 million to 2.6 million. Out-of-wedlock childbearing-which rose from 7.7 percent of all births in 1965 to 32.6 percent in 1994-has remained essentially flat since 1996.

Moreover, the employment rate of single mothers has increased dramatically since the mid-1990s, the analysts say. Employment of never-married mothers has climbed 50 percent; employment of single mothers who are high-school dropouts has risen by two-thirds and employment for young single mothers (ages 18-24) has nearly doubled.

And this growth can't be traced to the economy's robust performance during the 1990s. Rector and Fagan examined welfare caseload levels since 1950 and found that eight periods of economic expansion during that time hadn't led to any drop in dependence on welfare programs. They also looked at state caseload reduction levels and found they were tied to how vigorously welfare reform requirements were enforced rather than how well the local economy performed.

Rector and Fagan say Congress should address two key factors next year when it re-authorizes Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the program that replaced Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1996. It should tighten work requirements to ensure that all able-bodied parents engage in supervised job searches, community service work or training. About 1 million mothers currently don't fulfill the requirements but receive benefits anyway, he says.

In addition, re-authorization should focus on reducing illegitimacy and strengthening marriage, Rector and Fagan say. It should reduce welfare's penalties against marriage, educate young people on the value of marriage, and give couples the skills they need to keep their marriages together.

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