The welfare reform Congress passed in 1996 has proven remarkably successful. The legislation required welfare recipients to work or get job training in exchange for benefits. Critics charged that it would throw millions of children into poverty. In fact, there are 2.8 million fewer poor children today than in 1996.
Since then, national welfare caseloads have been cut in half. Employment among poor single mothers, who make up the overwhelming majority of welfare recipients, has soared by 50 percent to 100 percent. At the same time, the poverty rate of single mothers dropped by nearly a third and is now at the lowest point in U.S. history. The poverty rate for black children has fallen at a similar rate and also is at the lowest point in U.S. history.
An extraordinary success, the 1996 welfare law is up for renewal this year. The lead welfare bill in the Senate -- the Work, Opportunity and Responsibility for Kids (WORK) Act, designed and sponsored by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. -- was approved by the Senate Finance Committee in June. Next stop: the Senate floor.
Unfortunately, the WORK Act would overturn or undermine virtually every principle of the 1996 reform. President Bush has correctly warned that the legislation would not advance the reform movement but would "go backward." The bill is a "retreat from success" and "would hurt the very people we're trying to help," he said.
He's right: The WORK Act contains 257 pages of new text. Scarcely a single paragraph of the existing welfare law isn't significantly altered or rewritten completely.
Contrary to the claims of its supporters, the bill's so-called work requirements are so riddled with exemptions -- and set work requirements so low -- that they are empty and meaningless. "There are so many loopholes that a state could meet its work requirement without having even one person working at a job," according to the president. Few welfare recipients, if any, would be required to even prepare for work.
The bill seeks to restore welfare to a system of one-way handouts. Under it, those who consistently refuse to work can continue receiving welfare benefits indefinitely.
If enacted, the WORK Act would bring a counter-revolution in welfare. It effectively eliminates the five-year time limit on receipt of federal welfare benefits. It jettisons the goal of reducing welfare dependence and partially restores the pre-reform principle of entitlement funding that rewards states with more funds whenever their welfare caseloads increase. And by creating 18 new welfare programs and adding at least $10 billion in new spending over five years, it would significantly expand the size and scope of the welfare state.
Sen. Baucus claims that his bill would promote healthy marriages in low-income communities as a means to reduce child poverty and improve child well-being. But, as President Bush has said, the so-called pro-marriage provisions of the Baucus bill "have nothing to do with promoting marriage." In fact, many elements of the legislation would discourage marriage and reward out-of-wedlock child bearing. For example, it would use welfare funds to send never-married mothers to college and would count attending classes as "work." This sends a dangerous message to women at risk of having children outside marriage: "Have a child out of wedlock, and the government will support your family and put you through college for free."
Finally, under the WORK Act, individuals who sponsor immigrants to the United States no longer would be required to support them. Instead, the burden would be transferred to the taxpayers.
President Bush has stated, "We need a welfare bill that is strong on work, strong on marriage, and … good for the taxpayers." The WORK Act is none of these things.
Indeed, it rejects the very concept that welfare recipients should be required to earn benefits through constructive behavior. Instead, it would move us back to the old entitlement or "one-way handout" way of thinking the 1996 law was designed to replace -- and throw away six years of proven success.
Robert Rector is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire