Ten years ago, President Bill Clinton signed legislation overhauling the nation's welfare system. This historic legislation sought to reduce welfare dependence and child poverty by discouraging unwed childbearing and encouraging welfare recipients to move from welfare to work.
At the time of its enactment, liberal groups passionately denounced it, predicting it would bring substantial increases in poverty, hunger and other social ills.
Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women said the new welfare law "places 12.8 million people on welfare at risk of sinking further into poverty and homelessness." Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund said the law "will hurt and impoverish millions of American children" and "leave a moral blot on [Clinton's] presidency and on our nation that will never be forgotten."
Yet, contrary to these alarming forecasts, welfare reform has been remarkably effective in meeting each of its goals.
Over the last decade, child poverty has fallen, especially among black children and those being raised in single-mother households. For 25 years prior to welfare reform, the poverty rate in these two groups was frozen. Since 1995, the poverty rate has fallen from 42 percent to 33 percent for black children and from 50 percent to 42 percent for children of single mothers. Overall, 1.6 million fewer children live in poverty today than in 1995.
Welfare caseloads have been cut dramatically, from roughly 5 million families in 1995 to fewer than 2 million families today. During this same period, employment among single mothers has surged. The employment rate of never-married mothers has increased nearly 50 percent, the rate for high school dropouts has risen by two-thirds, and the rate for single moms under the age of 25 has doubled.
In addition, the long-term growth in unwed childbearing has come to a near standstill. The unwed birthrate was 8 percent in 1965 when the War on Poverty started; by 1995 it had reached 32 percent. Had it continued to increase at its former pace, the unwed childbearing rate would now be well above 40 percent. Instead, following welfare reform, the rate of increase slowed significantly, and the current rate is just under 35 percent.
Some attribute these positive trends to the strong economy of the late 1990s. While the economy no doubt contributed, most of the positive changes, especially the drop in welfare dependence, greatly exceeded what had occurred in prior economic expansions. The difference this time was welfare reform.
Former Clinton White House economic adviser Rebecca Blank found a direct link between state welfare-reform policies and rising incomes among poor families. According to Blank, states with welfare reform programs that offered strong work incentives showed greater increases in the income of single parents with children than did states with weak work incentives.
Blank also found states with stricter time limits and stronger sanction policies were more successful in raising the incomes of poor children than were states with lenient policies. "It is the more lenient states with softer penalties where children's income seems to have grown least," she concluded.
Yet in recent years many states, having met their initial federal goals for reducing dependence, have slackened their efforts. Some have drifted back toward their former practice of simply mailing welfare checks.
Fortunately, Congress has recently adopted measures to get state welfare bureaucracies back on task - working to reduce welfare dependency and encourage economic self-sufficiency through work.
As we reflect, though, on the success of the welfare reform act signed into law 10 years ago, we can learn two important lessons about work.
First, work requirements clearly worked. As long as there were viable state plans in place to require welfare recipients to work or do community service, increases in employment and decreases in dependency occurred.
Second, workfare is no panacea. Making welfare recipients work raises their incomes and personal esteem, but it has little effect on the problems associated with absent fathers and marital decline.
Today, more than one child in three in the United States is born out of wedlock. Nearly two-thirds of all poor children live in single-parent families. Children raised without a father in the home are much more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems, to fail in school, abuse drugs and resort to crime.
Births outside marriage typically occur to poorly educated men and women in their early twenties. Efforts to encourage these couples to think more seriously about marriage and future family life could pay enormous dividends. While low-income fathers may not be stellar earners, they typically have higher earnings capacity than low-income mothers do. Detailed survey data show that if poor single mothers were married to the fathers of their children, some 60 percent would be immediately raised out of poverty.
Most unmarried poor parents are not hostile to marriage. In fact, sociologist Kathryn Edin of Rutgers University has found that poor women have surprisingly conventional life goals. They want a house in the suburbs, a husband, several children and a dog. The problem is that most poor women lack a practical plan for achieving these goals.
In the middle class, couples typically build solid relationships first, then marry, and then have children. In low-income communities, this sequence is generally reversed: Children are strongly desired, and childbearing comes first. Enduring commitments and marriage are postponed to some indefinite future.
Kathryn Edin reports that poor women tend to view marriage as a rite of passage that celebrates the woman's acquisition of middle-class status late in life. In essence, poor women typically see marriage more as a hoped-for destination rather than a necessary and demanding pathway leading to social and economic success for themselves and their children.
Such faulty ideas often lead to bad decisions about boyfriends and babies. Most unmarried fathers drift off after a few years, leaving the mother and child to struggle on their own.
Still, it is noteworthy that Edin doesn't find anti-marriage attitudes among the poor. Moreover, researchers at Princeton and Columbia report that four out of five unmarried couples are still romantically involved in an exclusive relationship at the time that the woman gives birth to a child - and half of these new parents rate their chances of marrying each other someday as "certain" or "near certain."
While many low-income Americans have aspirations for marriage and family life, many lack the relationship skills needed for marital success. This is especially true of those who grew up in fractured families and were deprived of the opportunity to witness a successful marriage up close.
To address these needs, President Bush recently signed into law a reauthorization of the 1996 welfare reform act that features a new "Healthy Marriage Initiative." This is aimed at reducing the next generation of out-of-wedlock births, will provide grants to local groups interested in helping young people in at-risk communities see the long-term benefits of marriage and the perils of single parenthood.
Among other things, these healthy marriage programs will help couples acquire the relationship skills (conflict resolution, anger management, communication strategies, family rituals, etc.) that have helped many marriages succeed.
Funding for the Healthy Marriage Initiative ($100 million yearly), however, represents only about one penny to strengthen marriage for every $15 spent subsidizing single-parenthood, and that ratio isn't going to change the culture of welfare. Federal policymakers should consider extending the Healthy Marriage Initiative in years to come so that it will transform the culture of federal social service agencies and their clients.
Expenditures on such initiatives could lead to greater welfare cost savings in the future. Since the social and economic costs of single parenthood are huge, and the costs of the proposed pro-marriage activities are very low, marriage-strengthening programs can be highly cost effective even if they have only a modest success rate.
In recent decades, teen birth rates have fallen sharply because society has sent a clear and forceful message that having a baby as a teenager is harmful. Unfortunately, unmarried women in their early twenties are continuing to have babies out of wedlock at alarmingly high rates. Since little is gained by merely delaying a woman's first unwed pregnancy from age 18 to 21, policymakers need to become as clear and consistent in the messages they send to twenty-somethings as they are with teenagers.
Marriage initiatives often will be focused on unmarried couples at the "magic moment" a child is born, but the best time to get young people thinking about what it takes to have a "healthy marriage" is before couples get pregnant. In addition to expanding the Healthy Marriage Initiative, policymakers should seriously consider requiring Title X Family Planning clinics to make referrals to "life goals planning" programs that include training in healthy pre-marriage relationship skill-building. Participation in such programs would be strictly voluntary.
These programs would enable young adult women to obtain useful information about marriage and its role in child and adult well-being before they get pregnant out of wedlock. Together, the Healthy Marriage Initiative and the Title X requirement would represent a campaign of full disclosure, to give young women the rest of the story about the consequences associated with early, unwed sexual activity for them, their boyfriends and their future children.
The 1996 welfare reform act declared that "marriage is the foundation of a successful society." Legislators need to focus on strengthening that foundation as they seek to build upon the success of the welfare reform act passed 10 years ago.
Robert Rector is a Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal