Continuing to Transform Welfare: The Next Bold--and Compassionate--Step

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Continuing to Transform Welfare: The Next Bold--and Compassionate--Step

May 29, 2002 9 min read
The Honorable Tommy Thompson
Director, Executive Branch Relations

It's a privilege and a pleasure to be with all of you today to discuss the next bold step in the transformation of welfare reform. Ed Feulner has built the Heritage Foundation into the premier conservative think tank in the nation. Heritage has had a profound and positive influence on national policy for more than two decades. I have benefited so much from Heritage's good counsel and thoughtful work, and I thank you so very much for it.

In my great home state of Wisconsin, we began in the 1980s to deal head-on with a system that was entrapping the very people it was designed to help. I will never forget a woman coming up to me in Milwaukee when I first ran for governor in 1986 and saying, "Please do something about welfare. It's killing us."

She and her two children were relying on welfare checks to make ends meet. Instead of helping them, welfare was discouraging exactly the kinds of things--employment, job training, better education--that she needed to move out of dependency and into the mainstream of life.

I made up my mind to do something, and together with some very brave and dedicated people, we acted.

I brought welfare mothers to the Governor's Residence for lunch and asked them what the barriers were to them working and being independent. I found they wanted to work, but no one believed in them.

And they needed basic help that would allow them to go to work, such as child care and health care for their children. So together, we created a better way. We reformed the system so that it empowered people to begin climbing out of poverty, helping them go to work and take care of their children's needs.


Our actions--the reforms we put through--worked. The number of people on welfare in Wisconsin fell from about 100,000 families when I first took office to a caseload of about 6,700 people when I left office last year.

On the national scale, things have been every bit as dramatic. When welfare reform began nationwide, 12.2 million Americans were on the rolls. Now, that number is a bit less than 5.3 million. Child poverty rates are at their lowest level since 1978, with child poverty rates for African-Americans and female-headed households at their lowest levels ever. And those people are not just off welfare--they are better off.

They are building better lives; learning career skills; breaking the cycle of dependency that once trapped generations of Americans. And they are creating, instead, a cycle of independence and dignity for their families.

I should tell you, too, that the numbers keep falling nationwide. The number of people receiving assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program declined between October 2001 and December 2001, the latest reporting period in which individual state figures are available. That was during a downturn in the economy, as you know.

The latest statistics from the Administration for Children and Families show that during that time, the number of recipients of TANF benefits declined by 1 percent, from roughly 5.34 million to about 5.28 million.

So despite the soft economy and the attacks of September 11, the national welfare caseload did not increase. This is a testimony to the effectiveness of the TANF program and, more importantly, to the resiliency of the American people themselves.

All of that said, our goal has never been simply to cut the welfare rolls. We could just end funding and welfare would simply evaporate.

But so would the hopes and dreams of millions of people who, for far too long, have lacked the opportunity, training, and basic life skills needed to fulfill even modest aspirations. So, we gave new hope to so many people who, for far too long, saw their own American Dreams fading into an unreachable distance.

Let me underscore this point: The opponents of welfare reform seem to think that people on welfare are helpless, that they are powerless and unable to help themselves.


We conservatives deny that notion outright. Americans aren't victims--we're free citizens. We have been endowed by our Creator with certain rights that no government can or should attempt to diminish.

That's why true welfare reform is about empowerment: about helping everyone gain a firm foothold on the solid ground of personal opportunity, professional advancement, and a healthy family.

As Americans and as conservatives, we believe what the Founding Fathers believed: Every life is important. Every person has innate, God-given value. Every citizen deserves opportunity. And every child deserves a future.

Many years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt got to the heart of the matter when he described government assistance as "a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit." That's more than an eloquent statement by an icon of the Democratic Party. It's dead right.

That's why President Bush and I want to take the next bold step in welfare reform, a step that will help guarantee that the progress we have made so far will continue and deepen.

More must be done to reach those who have yet to benefit from the progress we have made over the past six years. We need to move beyond the new status quo of the existing TANF law and improve the program so that it completes the transition of individuals from the dependence of a welfare check to the independence of a paycheck.

We have put forth a reauthorization plan that sets high standards for states but gives them the flexibility and resources to meet those standards.


The heart of our program is work--long-term, sustainable, and remunerative work. My friends, there can't be too many things either more compassionate or more common sense-oriented than that.

If you want to help someone get out of poverty, help him or her gain the skills needed to become employable. Work with employers to craft programs that will encourage them to hire people eager for a chance and needing a job.

That's just what we've done by providing states $16.5 billion to develop job programs involving everything from basic skills training to employment experience to help move people from a welfare check to a paycheck.

Our plan raises the bar by requiring a 40-hour workweek. A full week of work or other constructive activities must be our goal if we are to truly help individuals dependent on welfare to become integrated into the workforce. After all, 40 hours is the standard workweek for men and women across America.

But the plan provides increased flexibility to help individuals meet this societal standard. An individual can spend 16 hours of those 40 hours in school, job training, or alcohol and drug treatment. Put simply, that's three days of work and two days of school. This provides the right balance between requiring work and helping workers overcome barriers to getting the skills needed to succeed on the job.

If I were in the corporate world, by the way, I would love this provision--having the government pay to give me a skilled workforce of aspiring new employees. That's an entrepreneur's dream.

The plan also allows states to designate a number of activities as work for four months within any 24-month period for each client. This provision is designed to enable states to get recipients into jobs or prepared for work with intensive short-term training or substance abuse treatment.

We are providing states even further flexibility in the form of broader waiver authority--also called a "superwaiver"--that streamlines many federal work and assistance programs, giving states more latitude to mold these programs to meet the unique needs of their citizens.

I should note that last week the House took the first big step towards reauthorizing TANF and passed a strong bill that reflected the proposal that the President announced last February.

Now we wait on the Senate. I hope not for too long, since the first step of welfare reform worked because governors, states, and the Congress didn't shy away from a tough challenge or high expectations. Rather, they embraced the opportunity to provide a better way of life for millions of Americans trapped in poverty by a welfare check.

Let me pause to mention that my friends the governors and my friends in the U.S. Senate need to act with the same courage as they did in 1996. We cannot rest on a partial victory. The more than five million Americans currently on welfare deserve more than a two steps forward and one step back. They deserve our best effort. And that's what our plan offers.


A key part of our plan is a renewed emphasis on the importance of the formation and maintenance of healthy two-parent families. The Administration seeks to allocate up to $300 million for states to voluntarily study how they can promote healthy families by encouraging programs designed to strengthen the family structure--a concept that has long had and continues to have strong bipartisan support.

Programs could include pre-marital education and counseling, as well as research and technical assistance into promising approaches for promoting strong families.

In my judgment, providing these kinds of services is just common sense. We know that children raised with married parents are much better off than those in a household without both a mom and a dad.

We also want to remove disincentives to marriage under the welfare system so that low-income couples that choose to marry are not penalized. For example, we would require states to provide equitable treatment for two-parent married families, and we would eliminate the separate two-parent family work participation rate.

And if we can provide people with the skills they need to know how to present themselves at a job, how to work effectively and productively, and with the services they need to help them care for their kids and have health care and get to work on time, why is it so astonishing that we want to offer them help in building strong marriages?

We are also focusing as never before on funding effective abstinence programs. As the President has said, abstinence is the only guaranteed way of avoiding an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease. There can be few more valuable lessons for us to communicate to our young people than that.

The President's budget reflects a $33 million increase over 2002 funding for abstinence-only education, fulfilling the President's pledge to fund abstinence-only programs at $135 million.

This is an unprecedented investment in teen abstinence education. For the first time, the federal government has demonstrated its commitment to bringing equity to the message of abstinence and teen family-planning services.

That's a brief sketch of what we're doing. The first stage of welfare reform brought unprecedented success. Millions of Americans now know the reward of work. Welfare mothers have found their long-lost self-esteem. All this is proof that welfare reform is having a positive impact on children.

We've made so much progress that it would be irresponsible to now cling to the status quo when the potential to truly help families climb out of poverty is within our grasp.

Our great mentor, Ronald Reagan, was pained by the legacy of a system that enmeshed people in dependency and, often, despair. He reminded us that we must not "perpetuate poverty by substituting a permanent dole for a paycheck. There is no humanity or charity in destroying self-reliance, dignity, and self-respect."

It's in that spirit we are taking the next bold--and compassionate--step. And I look forward to joining with all of you at Heritage as we take that step together.

The Honorable Tommy G. Thompson is U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.


The Honorable Tommy Thompson

Director, Executive Branch Relations