Welfare Reform at 10: A Singular Success

Ten years ago this week, President Bill Clinton ceremoniously signed welfare reform into law, while outside the White House gates protesters predicted doom. Because of welfare reform, millions of children would become homeless beggars, they said. Mothers would be forced into crime and prostitution. More malnutrition, more crime, more drugs and alcohol, the protesters said. None of this has happened. In fact welfare reform has been a singular success.

The program that congressional Republicans pressed to reform in 1996 was created in 1935 by Franklin D. Roosevelt as a part of the "New Deal." It was called "Aid to Dependent Children" (in 1960 the name changed to "Aid to Families with Dependent Children"), and the purpose was to help mothers who were widowed or deserted. In 1935 most Americans agreed that it was harmful for children when mothers were forced to work outside of the home. Therefore, when tragedy struck, widows or abandoned wives would receive government help so they would not have to leave their children and enter the labor force.

Things were very different in the 1930s. It was almost unthinkable then to have a child out of wedlock (less than 4% of children were "illegitimate"), divorce was much less common, and men felt a sense of responsibility toward their families. As the winding road of history snaked through the 1960s and ’70s, everything changed. Taboos were challenged, ancient morals were ridiculed, freedom was deified and personal fulfillment glorified. Before long, "liberated" women were giving birth to children without even considering marriage, and men were walking away from their children without a twinge of guilt.

Though the "sex, drugs and rock-n-roll" culture put a severe strain on the upper and middle classes, its effects were disastrous for the poor. Uninhibited sex and widely available drugs ultimately sent poor communities, especially urban communities, into a tail-spin. The fun-and-games wealthy white kids enjoyed at Woodstock became a living nightmare for poor inner-city children. Urban black children were hit especially hard, as the concept of fatherhood all but disappeared in some neighborhoods. Under these conditions, welfare was no longer considered a safety-net for those unexpectedly widowed or deserted. Instead, for many poor women — both white and black — the federal government became a substitute father figure, providing the resources necessary to raise the family. They were soon trapped in a culture of dependence. The incentives were perverse. Women who had more illegitimate children were rewarded with an increase in their welfare payments. Republicans, recognizing the truth of Ronald Reagan’s statement that if you subsidize something you get more of it, agitated for change.

The new welfare system turned out to be very different from the old one. Even the name of the new law indicated that things would be different: the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996." This new law had four goals: (1) temporarily assist needy families with children when additional income was required, (2) end long-term dependence on government hand-outs by requiring recipients to seek and find employment, (3) reduce out-of-wedlock births, and (4) encourage the formation of two-parent families.

After ten years of the new program, this much is clear: the gloomy scenarios predicted by many in 1996 have failed to materialize. In fact, research has shown that welfare reform has dramatically reduced child poverty. Today there are 1.6 million fewer children in poverty. This reduction is especially evident among black children, where the poverty rate has fallen from 41.5% to 32.9% (an unprecedented improvement). Welfare caseloads have been cut in half, meaning families are being increasingly liberated from government dependence. Additionally, the reforms have slowed the rate of increase in out-of-wedlock births.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of welfare reform, however, we must be careful not to declare, "Mission accomplished." There is still much work to do. The number of African-American children born out of wedlock, increasing their chances of living in poverty, hovers around 70%. Few welfare children know their fathers, and with mothers required to work, most of these children grow up with little family time. It is good that welfare reform has resulted in less material poverty, but we must aggressively promote healthy two-parent families. Research shows that children raised in single parent families are at an increased risk for a host of social pathologies — academic failure, juvenile delinquency, drug addiction, and teen suicide, just to name a few.

The importance of promoting strong families has not been lost on the Bush Administration. During his first term in office, President Bush took steps to expand the SCHIP program, which funds medical care for poor children, so that it included unborn children, giving poor pregnant women resources to ensure their babies’ health. The President also created the Healthy Marriage Initiative, which promotes strong marriages among those in poverty. While one would think that expanding medical care and encouraging strong marriages among the poor are ideas we could all get behind, the President has been met with fierce political opposition on both of these noble programs.

As we move ahead, hopefully toward the day when we can declare that welfare reform’s mission has been accomplished, we should support programs like the Healthy Marriage Initiative, which has unfortunately been under-funded. Such programs deserve our support. The strength of our nation is directly related to the strength of our families.