If the phrase "successful government program" sounds like an oxymoron, that's because it usually is. Once in a while, though, there's an exception.
Take the welfare reform law of 1996. It's been such a resounding success that Congress and President Bush have just renewed it -- with some significant improvements.
The 1996 law replaced the failed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with a new program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). It fixed the moral foundations of welfare by demanding that able-bodied recipients work or prepare for work in exchange for aid.
Federal rules required state bureaucracies to place a portion of welfare recipients into work activities. Since vigorous workfare programs cause welfare caseloads to drop, states also were given credit for any future caseload decline. Overall, states were required to engage some 45 percent of their TANF caseload in work activities, to reduce caseload by a similar percentage, or some combination of the two.
The results were staggering. Welfare caseloads, which had not significantly declined, even briefly, for almost a half century, dropped by 60 percent nationwide in a few years. States with the strongest work programs experienced declines of up to 80 percent.
Employment rates for single mothers surged. The poverty rates of black children and children of single mothers plummeted. By 2001, the black child poverty rate reached the lowest level in U.S. history.
In one sense, the reform was too successful. Welfare caseloads dropped far more rapidly than expected. By the late 1990s most states had met the federal goals, so they were no longer required to reduce dependence or place recipients in work activities.
Without federal pressure, most welfare bureaucracies drifted back into their old habit of simply mailing welfare checks. Efforts to reduce dependence and boost employment came to a standstill, and the rapid drop came to an end. For the last four years, the national TANF caseload has remained almost flat.
Starting in 2002, Congress attempted to reauthorize TANF and reactivate the federal work standards, but liberals in Congress (most of whom had opposed the original welfare reform) repeatedly blocked these efforts. Recently, however, Congress voted to renew welfare reform as part of its budget reconciliation act.
Though far from perfect, the new welfare law is a substantial step forward. It essentially restarts the 1996 reform. States are again required to place some 45 percent of the TANF caseload into work activities or to reduce future caseloads by a similar amount. But now states will be measured against the low caseload levels of 2005 instead of the high 1995 levels under the original law. For the first time in many years, state welfare bureaucracies will be pushed to engage recipients in work and to reduce dependence.
Even more important: For the first time, the new law will promote healthy marriage.
Tragically, more than one third of children are now born out of wedlock; among blacks the figure is 68 percent. Children born and raised outside marriage are seven times more likely to live in poverty than are children raised by married couples.
Growing up without a father in the home has other harmful long-term effects on children. Children raised in single-parent homes are more likely to become involved in crime, have emotional and behavioral problems, fail in school, abuse drugs and end up on welfare as adults.
Yet the welfare system actually undermines marriage in low-income communities, treating fathers as irrelevant and pushing them from the home. Although the original welfare-reform law set symbolic goals for increasing marriage and reducing out-of-wedlock childbearing, most state welfare bureaucracies simply ignored these objectives.
The new law will change that. For the first time, a small portion of TANF funds ($100 million per year) will go to local groups enthusiastic about restoring marriage. While this funding represents only about one penny to strengthen marriage for every $15 spent subsidizing single-parenthood, the new marriage program still will be a bold departure from old-style welfare policy.
Our government has finally acknowledged children are better off when raised by two parents united in a stable marriage. It's a revolution in welfare thinking, one that bodes well for the future. Restoring married families in low-income communities won't be easy, but the vital first step -- renewing a "successful government program" -- has been taken.
Robert Rector is a senior research fellow domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire