We have been looking back on the great success of the bipartisan welfare reform act of 1996. In Part 1, Robert Rector told us that in order to serve the 1 in 7 American children who were dependent on government aid, we needed to do two things: First: require work in exchange for welfare, and second: Strengthen families.
In Part 2, we heard that as a result of achieving these, welfare caseloads (which had not dropped significantly in 50 years) promptly fell by 60%, the child poverty rate suddenly dropped by a third (after being static for a quarter century), and the poverty rate for single-parent families has dropped by two-thirds since reform.
But the Biden Administration and liberals in Congress are trying to upend these incredible successes, by giving welfare to people under the name of "tax credits", and requiring virtually nothing to get it. On this episode, Former Senator Rick Santorum joins us to talk about his role in passing welfare reform in 1996, and what we must do to push back against The Left's attempt to rob people of the dignity of work.
Tim Doescher: Just a little co-host privilege at the top of the episode. It is just incredible how consistent this audience is. Thank you for listening each week. Thank you for engaging with us, for sending us email, or posting a comment wherever you listen, or hitting that like button. Actually, I think that Michelle and I like reading people who disagree with us more than we do people who agree with us. So get active. Let us know if you disagree. It'd be great to hear from you, but, but this week I wanted to ask us to go big. Let's think about friends and family, and coworkers, and baristas, and friends you meet at your kid's sporting events, or church friends. Anyone who can benefit from the content of this podcast, let's share it. This is all grass roots, baby. It's on us. So let's do it. Thank you so much for listening. Thank you for sharing. And John, let's start the show. From The Heritage Foundation I'm Tim Doescher, and this is Heritage Explains.
Doescher: For the last two episodes Michelle and I have been looking back on the great success of the bipartisan Welfare Reform Act of 1996. Robert Rector told us that in crafting welfare reform to serve the one in seven American children who were dependent on government aid, we needed to do two things. First require work in exchange for welfare, and second strengthened families. On the last episode, we heard that as a result of these objectives, welfare case loads, which by the way, hadn't dropped significantly in 50 years, promptly fell 60%. Also, the child poverty rate suddenly dropped by a third after being static for a quarter century. In addition, the poverty rate for single parent families has dropped by two thirds since the reform. Just let that sink in for a second. What an incredible victory. But recently, instead of pursuing similar reforms, president Biden and liberals in Congress are hoping to totally upend this by disguising welfare as tax credits and requiring very little, if anything, to get it. It sort of defeats the purpose and smacks in the face of something that was clearly a huge success.
Senator Rick Santorum: This is the real deal when it comes to work, when it comes to education and training, and helping families get out of poverty. From now on after this bill, we're no longer going to measure whether we're successful in poverty by how many people we have on the welfare rolls and that we're taking care of, but how many people we've gotten off the welfare roles because they have dynamic work opportunities, because they have education and training to make that all happen. And yes, they have a requirement. We've had lots of welfare reform in the United States Senate pass for years and years, but there's never been the requirement to have to work. It's tough love, but it is. The operative word is love. It is there. It is to help people.
Doescher: In case you don't recognize that voice it's former Senator Rick Santorum making his case on the Senate floor in 1996, just before they voted. He was crucial to passing this legislation, and has championed this issue his entire career. After his time ended in the Senate, he continued to be an advocate for these issues. And on this final episode of our three-part series, Santorum gives us a behind the scenes look at passing welfare reform in 1996, including an awesome story about Senator Ted Kennedy. In addition, he analyzes what's currently happening and shares valuable insight from his continued fight to make welfare work for America. Now, just for the sake of full disclosure, before my role here at The Heritage Foundation, I was a paid staff member on the Rick Santorum for President campaign in 2012. But now let's get into the interview.
Doescher: Senator Santorum, we just played a clip from one of your speeches on the Senate floor. And I'm going to be just a little gauche here, and I'm going to quote you to you, but I just want your initial reaction given this is kind of a retrospective of this. So here's the quote. It says, 'From this moment on we are no longer going to measure if we're successful in poverty by how many people we have on the welfare rolls, but how many people we've gotten off the welfare roles because they have a dynamic work opportunity and educational training. It's tough love, but the operative word is love.' Senator, you've been a champion for this issue your entire career. Just start us out. Why this issue,
Santorum: I guess it really stems from my faith. And we, as Christians, as someone believes that it is our responsible to help our neighbor, and to help those in poverty, and those who need a helping hand. And now, as a Christian, I know that that responsibility is not a corporate one. It's a personal one. So that is part of my duty as an individual to help others one-on-one or as part of an organization that's doing it. But I extend that, that the government has taken a much bigger part of that role. We can debate here today whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, but at the time, in the mid 1990s, it was an ever growing number of people were getting on welfare programs, everything.
Santorum: Not just food stamps, which I think it reached, at the time, an all time high, to aid the families with dependent children, which were sort of welfare payments for people who were not working. And I just felt like that we weren't helping people. More and more people are getting on the roles, more and more people we're relying more on government. And less on individual charity, less on the things that I felt were really the more personal commitments, and we were doing it the wrong way. We were paying people not to work instead of incentivizing them to find the work opportunities so they could get into a life of earned success.
Doescher: From your insider perspective, you were in the House, then you were in the Senate. What brought this issue to the majors? Was it the sheer fact that it was just glaringly obvious and out of control? Give us some of the inside look there on the hill.
Santorum: Well, Bill Clinton sold America that he was a new Democrat. That he was not the big liberal Democrat that had, after the Reagan revolution, had sort of fallen out of favor. And so he had this third way, and he had a couple of moments in his campaign. One was the Sister Souljah moment, which you can go back and look it up, and the other was being for welfare reform. And that made him accessible to a lot of moderates, and even some conservatives who may have been frustrated with George H. W. Bush at the time, and him raising taxes and cutting deals with Democrats that the conservatives weren't happy with. So this was his signature. And the interesting thing was, he won in 1992. And for the first few years, and this was a big part of his campaign, he never proposed any changes in welfare.
Santorum: Never. I mean, it's like Obama running on healthcare and not proposing a healthcare bill. I mean, you would've thought how's that possible? Well, it's possible because he really didn't want to do it. He just wanted to campaign saying he was going to do it. And with Democrats control of the Congress, he didn't have to do right.
Santorum: And when 1994 came around, we knew that we were going to have a good year. And you may recall something called the Contract with America that Newt Gingrich put together. And I was in the House at the time. And I was actually on the Ways and Means Committee at the time. And I happened to be the ranking member, which is the senior Republican on the committee that oversaw welfare policy. And so, when we put together the Contract with America Newt came to me and said, "You and your committee need to put together a bill." And so we spent almost a year meetings.
Santorum: I mean, just incredible amount of time and effort we put in, and we put together the Contract with America Welfare Reform proposal, and that's how we... That's one of the major themes in 1994 that we were going to follow through and make Bill Clinton do a welfare reform package. So, yes, it was... I know it's hard to imagine these days, but it was a major, major part of the success that we had, from a policy point of view, in the 1994 election.
Doescher: And grant it, we keep talking about how bipartisan this was, but I'm curious just how those talks with Democrats went to bring that many along. Were there are compromises, or was it kind of, hey, we've got the mandate here, we know that President Clinton likes this. So come along with us or get off kind of a thing?
Santorum: There were a lot of Democrats that did agree that something needed to be done to tighten up the system. But with the 1994 election, and the fact that we won, and controlled the House for the first time in 4 years, there was a huge effort to do more than what we even suggested in our Contract with America proposal. In fact, there's a funny story. As we were... The House... Let me give you a little background. The House was the first one to introduce a bill. And Clay Shaw who was over there, who was the chairman of the committee, was just terrific and put together a great piece of legislation. And we did a little collaborative work over in the Senate.
Santorum: And the bill came over, and it was myself and John Ashcroft, who was a former governor. There were several former governors who were there. Judd Gregg, and many others who worked on this with us. And we put together this bill. None of us were on the relevant committee, but all of us cared about this issue. And so we ended up working on this, and I ended up managing the bill as a freshman member on the floor of the Senate. And I remember getting up right before the bill was to be passed. And Ted Kennedy came over to me. And Ted said, "You know, my staff was doing some research and we found this bill that you introduced when you were over in the House, that you sponsored." And he, "You know, if you agree to that bill I'll vote for it. And I'll cooperate."
Doescher: You're kidding.
Santorum: Well, that was the Contract with America Welfare Reform bill. So that's how much things had changed.
Santorum: The Kennedy who ultimately opposed the bill to pass was for what we proposed 12 months earlier during the election. So winning elections have consequences, and being able to go out there and pull together good solid policies that the American public can understand. And they can understand the basic concept of what we were trying to do here.
Doescher: I'm still just envisioning in my head, as a younger person, having a conversation with Ted Kennedy like that. It would just be mind blowing to imagine that. I mean, what an incredible thing.
Santorum: Well it was funny, because he had no idea that that was the Contract with America [inaudible 00:12:46]. His staff had just found a bill that I sponsored. And then I guess they just didn't do the homework and found out that there was actually something that he called an abomination when we introduced it. And now four months later he was willing to co-sponsor it and pass it into law.
Doescher: I'm curious what you see happening on the hill right now. I know you track all this stuff. I'm curious to hear what your reaction is to Biden's and the Democrats now attempt to completely overhaul that without even mentioning 1996?
Santorum: Yeah. That's the important thing is that no one wants to fight a battle they can't win. And so what they're doing is rejiggering their arguments to take the focus away from work, families. If you remember back in '96, we increased the earned income credit. We did things to make work pay. That was one of our slogans. We're going to make work pay.
Santorum: And you don't hear any of that from the Biden administration. All you hear about is people are hurting. We have to help people who are hurting. The family structure has changed. And so we have to take care of people. We have to give them cradle to grave care. And now I can tell you, 25 years ago, those arguments weren't going to sell. But as we've seen, I mean, the progressives have taken a very, very bold approach in dramatically expanding the size and scope of government even though Joe Biden, as we all know, promised he was going to be a moderate. He has taken a very, very left wing approach to things. And again, it would be nice if Republicans would focus on the impact these programs will have on the people they are intending to help.
Santorum: Because if we remove incentives to work, if we remove incentives to get education so you can get training so you can go to work we're not going to help people. We're going to damn them to eternal poverty.
Doescher: Is the messaging the same today as it was back then? How do lawmakers that are willing to talk about this now, how do they talk about this, especially with this attempt to effectively upend welfare reform?
Santorum: There's been all sorts of studies done on people who have won the lottery. And most of them are miserable within a year or two of having won the lottery. They may have a lot of money, but they know they didn't earn it, and they end up not doing very well on a variety of different fronts. When you know that the work that you have put in has led to the success that you're having economically there are all sorts of benefits, personally, mental health wise, socially, and the enormous benefits to your children in seeing mom, and a mom and dad being able to provide for them, and doing it from the sweat of their brow. All of those things are great dynamics. They teach lessons that are important lessons for children to learn.
Santorum: If you work to create the money that you have to do so. And so when we rob people of that, and that's the word we have to use. When we rob people of the dignity of work, we rob them of the opportunity to succeed. We rob them the opportunities to achieve, and to better themselves. That is not helping people in the short term. It may help them, in the short term, be able to put food on their table, but it's not going to help them over the longterm to live a happier, better life.
Doescher: Yeah. Well, Senator Santorum, what an honor to speak with you. What an honor to kind of just watch this whole thing come to life from 1996, and then the benefits that we've seen through that hard work that you put in, your colleagues in the Senate and the House put in. So I just wanted to say thank you for coming on and and kind of tying that to today. So again, thank you so much.
Santorum: My pleasure. Thank you. Bye-bye.
Doescher: And that's a wrap. Thank you so much for listening to this three part series on welfare reform. If you missed any one of these episodes, don't worry. Head over to the show notes. I've linked to the previous two episodes, as well as all the work that went into helping build these episodes out. You can find it all in the show notes. Next week we're up with a new episode. We'll see you then.