Welfare reform has been a success. However lawmakers must again take the reigns to adopt proposals which will advance, not halt, progress. As Ronald Reagan said, "Welfare's purpose should be to eliminate, as far as possible, the need for its own existence."
As the 1996 welfare law approaches its September 30 expiration date many members of Congress recognize the importance of adopting measures to improve upon previous accomplishments. Unfortunately, some legislators would accept proposals which undermine the progress made by welfare reform. In the words of President Bush, Congress must remain dedicated to "reduce dependency on government and offer every American the dignity of a job."
Within the political debate surrounding the sweeping 1996 legislation, opponents of welfare reform used scary rhetoric to predict an explosion of a vast array of social problems. (See Welfare Quotes: They Said It).
Contrary to these alarming forecasts, poverty had dropped substantially, with the biggest declines in child poverty and poverty among minorities and single mothers. Today, 2.3 million fewer children live in poverty than in 1996. Child hunger has been cut nearly in half with 2 million fewer hungry children since the enactment of welfare reform. Caseloads have been cut in half, employment among single mothers has doubled, and out-of-wedlock births have rapidly declined.
Work = Success
Engaging people in constructive work is the cornerstone of successful welfare reform. Work carries with it economic and social benefits for both the individual and the society. Not only do employed citizens contribute resources to the economy rather than consume them, but also enhance their own responsibility, independence, and freedom. Therefore, new welfare legislation must measure its results in caseload reduction rather than use tricky accounting measures to feign progress where it does not exist. Welfare recipients should be required to work 40 hours per week; and work requirements should be more than work suggestions. High populations states, such as California and New York, continue to provide benefits for individuals who do not participate in welfare-to-work activity. By removing only a small portion of the TANF check, the "adult portion," states are allowing individuals to shirk responsibility while these partial-sanction states retain the majority of TANF caseloads. Federal law must establish incentives to work by enforcing penalties for noncompliance.
Critics of reform will parrot the tired arguments heard during debate over the 1996 bill. Standards are too high, the economy is performing too poorly, children and families will suffer. Nonsense. The first round of welfare reform was just the beginning, and Congress can do even better for citizens. Welfare reauthorization should build on previous achievements by raising the bar higher. Decreasing the amount of people dependent upon the government for a paycheck should always be the legitimate goal of the welfare system. Although America has experienced economic growth the past six years, caseload reduction relies on reform, not merely a strong economy. Reflecting on the tremendous benefits to the poor brought about by the 1996 welfare reform, a true concern for the well being of children and families supports further reform.
The underlying principle of welfare reform, the fundamental logic that people deserve the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families, motivates continuation of reform efforts. The appropriate response to progress is not to stop halfway nor to destroy advances by reverting back to an earlier time. Through diligent efforts, Congress has created a system that works for individuals, especially poor families. Now it is up to lawmakers to finish on the job on welfare reform.
The Good News About Welfare Reform by Robert Rector and Patrick F. Fagan
- Continuing to Transform Welfare: The Next Bold--and Compassionate--Step by The Honorable Tommy G. Thompson
Heritage's Welfare Research Center