That's not to say the reform wasn't a success. It was. Caseloads shrunk by more than 60 percent, 2.8 million families moved off the rolls and into jobs, and 1.6 million fewer children were left in poverty. Why the improvement? For the first time, welfare was linked to work, breaking the cycle of poverty for millions of Americans and enabling them to begin providing for themselves.
Fifteen years later, though, welfare isn't close to ending. The '96 reforms restructured only one federal welfare program (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) out of more than 70. Today, they are spread out over 13 government agencies and cost taxpayers more than $900 billion a year. Federal and state welfare spending has almost doubled since Mr. Clinton signed the '96 legislation.
This surge in spending is unsustainable. The United States already has spent $16 trillion since President Johnson launched his "War on Poverty" in 1964, and we're on pace to add another $10 trillion in the next decade.
Small wonder that some lawmakers are mounting a new reform effort. Even if they simply capped welfare spending at pre-recession levels (and they need to do much more), we're still talking about $16,800 per poor person on benefits.
This is about more than money, though. Even if all this welfare spending were affordable, we'd still be doing those in poverty no favors.
"Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber," President Roosevelt said in 1935, at the height of the Great Depression. "To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit."
The food stamp program is a good example. It's commonly seen as a short-term assistance program for those down on their luck. Yet half of food stamp aid goes to individuals who have received aid for 8.5 years or more. They're caught in a cycle of dependency. If they haven't broken free after all that time, when, under current conditions, will they ever achieve independence?
We see the same dynamic at work here that we see in education: Affordability aside, simply spending more money isn't the answer. Otherwise, the public schools in the District of Columbia would lead the nation in academic achievement (rather than come in last), and we would have won the war on poverty long ago.
It's time to apply the '96 model more widely. That is why Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican, advocates linking food stamps to work - those receiving it should either have a job or be actively seeking one. "The aim of welfare should be to help people reach the point where they no longer need it," Mr. Jordan said.
There's a scene in the movie "Cinderella Man," the true-life story of boxer Jimmy Braddock, where we see him pay back the welfare funds that helped his family when they were desperately poor. "I believe we live in a great country ... great enough to help a man financially when he's in trouble," he tells a reporter who asks him why. "I'm back in the black. And I just thought I should return it."
That's the spirit that should animate any new efforts to reform welfare. We can't solve our fiscal crisis if we ignore it, and we can't truly help those on welfare if we don't fix it so that it is, in fact, a hand up - and not a handout.
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times