The True Purpose of Welfare Reform

The welfare measure signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 expires this year, so a new law is needed to extend or modify it. The House of Representatives, acting mainly along party lines, has passed a bill that is pretty much what President Bush asked for; it will soon be taken up by the Senate.

How have Americans been doing under the 1996 law? Federal welfare money is given to states as a block grant, so each state is different. Nonetheless, the broad story of families who left welfare has two major variants. One story is of the women who found jobs -- the great majority of welfare payments go to single mothers -- and the other is about those who are worse off. The latter are a remarkably large group; on any given day, something like 40 percent of former welfare recipients, or well over a million women, have no job, an indication of the 1996 law's failure as policy. The women who found work are the basis for the claim that the 1996 law is a huge success, but even there, one has to ask whether their families have escaped from poverty and what will happen to them if the current recession lasts.

The 1996 law got some women to look for work who might otherwise not have done so, and it got the numbers down by pushing people off the welfare rolls or not letting them on. But the big post-1996 fact was the increase in the number of jobs -- many areas had unemployment rates below 3 percent.

Employment of never-married mothers shot up, although that did not necessarily mean they escaped from poverty. (Today they make an average of just under $8 an hour working about 35 hours a week, which would add up to around $14,000 annually.) The earned-income tax credit helped a lot, adding about $4,000 to the income of a minimum-wage worker with two children. But averages are deceiving. If your job was, for example, a 20-hour position as a school crossing guard for $107 a week, or if you kept cycling in and out of jobs, you and your children were still threatened with homelessness and hunger. The main lesson of the 1996 law is that having a job and earning a livable income are two different things.

The Bush administration and its Congressional allies chose to ignore this fact and instead are going the get-tough route. Perhaps hoping to create a wedge issue by making the Democrats appear soft on the work issue, they looked at the fewer than two million parents still on welfare (down from nearly five million in the early 90's) and said, in effect: "These loafers are still on the rolls. We have to get after them."

They proposed even tougher work requirements that had nothing to do with actually helping people find a job. Sad to say, they were abetted by a few Senate Democrats, led by Senators Evan Bayh and Thomas Carper, who have made a similar proposal the centerpiece of their own bill.

Who are the two million adults still on the rolls? Many are there temporarily while they look for work and need no push to do anything. The remainder are the hard cases -- the ones who have less education, less work experience and more personal problems. Rigid requirements are the exact opposite of the individualized approach they need.

The House bill would effectively require states to spend large amounts of precious welfare funds on make-work jobs programs. (Such programs were not adopted by a single state on a statewide basis, as was possible under the 1996 law -- probably because workfare is expensive and does not prepare people to find real jobs.) The pittance added for child care by the House is laughable -- $2 billion over five years. If the Bush work proposals become law, states will be able to comply only by dismantling child care and other supports now in place.

The Senate should reject the Bush proposals and adopt more sensible reforms. Low-wage workers would be greatly helped, for example, if the use of federal funds by states to supplement the incomes of those who have left welfare to work were not subject to time limits. Welfare rules should be rewritten so they do not hinder people from attending community college. Financing for child care and other supports should be substantially increased. All benefits for legal immigrants should be fully restored. And responsible fatherhood could be encouraged if the federal government promoted ways to help young, less educated African-American men, who were left out during the economic expansion of the past decade, find work. A set of proposals developed by Senators Edward Kennedy, Paul Wellstone and Jon Corzine includes many of these suggestions.

The repoliticized welfare debate, put in play by the White House, ignores the purpose of welfare policy, which should be to help the poorest families earn enough to lift more children above the poverty line. The further tragedy is that it diverts attention from the broader issue: the millions of Americans whose earnings from work, while not technically placing them in poverty, leave them struggling daily to make ends meet.

I just returned from a visit to Britain, where Prime Minister Tony Blair has committed himself to eradicating child poverty. The major weapons his government is using are a series of income supplements that are more sophisticated versions of our earned-income tax credit. I wish the common ground he and President Bush have found in fighting terrorism would extend to ending poverty. It would be a refreshing change from the rhetoric we heard on the House floor during the recent welfare debate.

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