The 1996 federal welfare reform law struck a massive blow against the dependency culture; Congress now has the opportunity to deliver the coup de grâce. In the five years since the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Act (TANF) passed, the norm of non-work among poor single mothers eroded faster than anyone had dared to predict. Now Congress faces a choice as it takes up TANFs reauthorization in 2002: it can ensure another five years of startling change in welfare culture by preserving the bills essential featuresabove all, the five-year time limit on welfare receipt and the work requirementsor it can halt the momentum of that change by listening to reforms enemies. The vested interests who frantically fought the 1996 law are already lining up for another battle. Lawmakers should hold the line against their demands.
TANF represented a humiliating rebuff to the poverty industry. For decades, welfare advocates had denied that a welfare culture existed. They branded as racist anyone who dared suggest that dependency had become a way of life in inner cities, or that a liberal welfare system was contributing to the family breakdown and juvenile delinquency of the urban core.
The fulminations of the advocates and their amplifiers in the press had policymakers completely coweduntil 1996. That year, Congressemboldened by a growing national distaste for the consequences of welfare and by the increasingly persuasive argument of conservative intellectuals that those bad consequences were inevitablebluntly declared that the web of federal poverty entitlements had indeed created a dependent class, and it made a wager. The lawmakers bet that welfare recipients stayed stuck on the dole not because there were no jobs available to them, as the advocates insisted, but because no one had ever asked them to do anything for themselves. Restore some reciprocity in the systemcondition benefits on productive effortand people would respond.
In addition, TANF made a second radical break from the welfare status quo. Welfare would now be an emergency stopgap between jobs, not a reward that government gives you for being poor for as long as you stay poor. Accordingly, each individual would be limited to five years of federal assistance over her lifetime. The norm for the poor, as for everyone else, would be work; being on welfare would be the temporary exception.
Congresss wager paid off handsomely. Asked to look for work in exchange for their welfare checks, hundreds of thousands of women found jobs. From 1996 to 1999, employment among the nations never-married mothers rose 40 percent. In 1992, only 38 percent of young single mothers worked; by March 2000, 60 percent of that group were employed. Another large portion of the caseload, faced with new participation requirements, simply decided that welfare was not worth the hassle. The result: a 52 percent drop in the caseload since August 1996, when TANF passed, to June 2001. Nearly 2.3 million families have left the rolls.
Sealing the reformers triumph, poverty has plummeted in tandem with welfare use. As Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institute reports, by 1999 child poverty among female-headed households had fallen to its lowest rate ever. Most notably, black children are now better off economically than at any time on record. So much for the myth that welfare is essential to keeping people from want.
Die-hard critics of welfare reform continue to insist that the strong economy of the 1990s, not the new message about self-sufficiency, led to the striking rise in employment and the decrease in poverty among the former welfare poor. But previous booms have not produced the same effects. Child poverty fell more than twice as much in the 1990s as during the economic expansion of the 1980s, when the welfare rolls in fact rose 10 percent. Economists June ONeill and Anne Hill estimate in a Manhattan Institute study that TANF accounts for more than half the decline in welfare participation and over 60 percent of the rise in employment among single mothers.
Throughout this remarkable period, poverty advocates agitated tirelessly to arouse grassroots opposition to the new regime. But aside from a few poorly attended demonstrations by professional protesters, no popular uprising against the work rules and time limits has developed. And that is because TANF finally brought public assistance into line with the views of the poor.
The harshest critics of the open-ended dole and the behavior it fosters have always been the people in the waiting rooms of welfare offices. Nowhere have I heard such unapologetic denunciations of women having babies they cant support, or welfare mothers watching Jerry Springer all day, than from people in the system. And today, welfare reforms most enthusiastic backers are also welfare users.
This is a great place! exclaims Jesse Peraza, a wiry 25-year-old, in the Anaheim, California, welfare-to-work office. The program now is: if you get aid, they put you to work. Thats a great program, because lifes not free. Jesse was recently laid off from a warehouse position for the Carls Jr. fast-food chain. Now, the Anaheim welfare office is helping him pay the registration fee for a state insurance exam so he can start a new job. They shouldve [required work] from the beginning; then a lot more people would have jobs, he observes.
Beverley Robinson was on welfare for 20 years; now she helps welfare recipients find jobs at Curtis and Associates, a welfare-to-work firm in Brooklyn. The five-year time limit finally persuaded her to enter the legal workforce, she claims, and it has done the same for the people she works with. Some women are looking for a way to get back on their feet, she notes. They may not know how to put together a résumé or get a job, but they are glad for the mandatory notice.
The only criticism of TANF I heard during numerous interviews with recipients and caseworkers in New York and California was that Congress did not go far enough. Although the aggregate numbers show powerful changes in the welfare population, people closest to the problem warn that the welfare culture is far from defeated. These are the experts to whom lawmakers should pay attention in debating reauthorization.
Too many people are still abusing the system, complains a laid-off receptionist in a Tigger T-shirt, waiting for an appointment with her caseworker in the Anaheim welfare office. People who are able to work are still on public assistance.
Tomacka, a clerk in the downtown Los Angeles social services office, agrees that excessive loopholes remain in TANF. It should be totally regimented, she says on a cigarette break outside the low, white county building, surrounded by Mexican vendors selling pop-music tapes and ice cream. As soon as you apply, you should start working for your check. These parents never have to learn a trade. Like many employees of the welfare behemoth, Tomacka was herself once on public assistance, but that doesnt make her any more sympathetic to bad behavior. People seem rebellious, she says, frowning. They dont abide by the rules. They just do what they want to do.
Continuing illegitimacy also comes under severe criticism from the welfare and working poor, even though the percentage of total births that are out of wedlock has stabilized since 1996 (at a whopping 33 percent), and the percentage of black children living with married parents has ticked upward. In the view of eyewitnesses, though, not enough has changed. People are having all kinds of kids and expecting the government to support them, fumes Dana Noriega, a 19-year-old former phone operator applying for welfare in downtown Los Angeles. A single mother herself and untroubled by the irony of her views, Noriega occasionally volunteers at a home for unwed pregnant teens. I see it every single day: people who dont care, who have babies all day. Then they come here and theyre screaming and yelling, Give me my money! They cuss off people and stuff.
Welfare administrators echo these street-level assessments about the persistence of the welfare culture. It seems like were pushing water uphill, sighs Dick Antopol, a self-described liberal welfare director in Anaheim. Were stymied by the ones we cant get to work. Eventually, maybe, we will change the culture, but not in five years.
The behavior my recipient-informants decrynon-work, illegitimacy, refusal to follow rules, the entitlement mentalitywould greatly subside if Congress tightened certain provisions and imposed a few new mandates. Doing so will require ignoring the advocates, who seek to push TANF back toward an entitlement trap. It will also require standing up to the state governors, who resisted TANFs work philosophy in 1996 and who now oppose any new federal requirements on state welfare programs as a violation of their sovereignty. Congress should firmly respond that it has a duty to ensure that federal taxpayer dollars are maximally effective in encouraging self-sufficiency.
First, lawmakers should tighten TANFs work requirement. Despite the overarching reform principle that welfare should always be conditioned on work, people can still receive benefits and easily avoid any work obligations. Thanks to current TANF rules, fewer than half of the able-bodied people still on the rolls are actually involved in work activities, which include such things as babysitting for other recipients children or looking for a jobor working full-time at a job that pays too little to lift the recipient above the poverty level. The bill only required that 50 percent of a states caseload be engaged in such activities by 2002, and it exempted recipients from working for their first two years on the rolls. But it also gave states a point-for-point reduction of their work-participation requirement for each percentage-point drop in their welfare rolls. If a states rolls have dropped 25 percent, say, it will only have to ensure that 25 percent of those remaining on the rolls in 2002 are engaged in some work activity. Twenty-three states are now exempt from putting anyone in work activities, because their caseload drops wiped out their work requirements.
Congress should reaffirm the work philosophy of TANF by stiffening the requirements on states to get their remaining welfare recipients into work activities. Lawmakers should eliminate the caseload reduction credit for the future, along with the two-year grace period from work activities. Ideally, states would eventually be required to have 100 percent of their able-bodied welfare recipients in some sort of activitya system already in place in Wisconsin. Matt Weidinger, a staff director with the House Ways and Means Committee, predicts that the governors will light themselves on fire if the caseload credit is taken awaybecause it makes their job harderbut Congress should be prepared to take the heat.
Meeting a 100 percent work-participation requirement will probably force states to create a workfare program for the most intractable part of their caseload, something most welfare administrators have shrunk from doing. Many share the prejudice of Orange County, Californias, social services director, Larry Leaman, who exclaims: The last thing we need is leaf rakers in California! In modern times, its unthinkable. Leaman and others see workfare as demeaning to participants and a throwback to WPA days.
But why is it more demeaning to rake leaves outside Leamans offices than to be sprawled out on one of the benches there, high on drugsa frequent local sight? A continent away, New York City advocates have long railed against Gothams workfare program, WEP, as belittling. But Denyse Paul, an elegant young woman who sought Medicaid and welfare after developing rheumatoid arthritis, maintains otherwise, based on firsthand experience. WEP was good for me, she says, I could show them I could do it. Recognizing that even government jobs programs are preferable to idleness, Congress should encourage states to create a workfare capacity, especially given the possibility that the economy will continue softening.
Besides the caseload reduction credit, the biggest reason why welfare recipients are still not all in work activities is a lamentable practice known as partial check sanctioning. In 16 reform-reluctant states like California and New York, a mother who refuses any work activity is kept on the rolls and only docked a small portion of her welfare check. She continues to receive the vast majority of her benefits, which allegedly represents her childrens portion, as well as food stamps and Medicaid. In stricter states, by contrast, if someone repeatedly refuses any kind of work, she will be cut off welfare entirely.
Partial check sanctions are the despair of welfare administrators nationwide, because once a recipient goes into partial check sanction status, the government loses all leverage over her. No matter how recalcitrant or irresponsible her behavior, there is no other sanction to apply. You should never have a situation where you pay welfare without having a hook, complains Angelo Doti, an official with the Orange County, California, social services department. A mom can turn her back on us. Shes getting a $600 check for three children, food stamps, Medicaidwhats a hundred bucks? Partial checks have a perverse upside for recipients, notes Doti hopelessly: If someone is on Section 8 [federal housing vouchers], the more we cut her grant, the cheaper her housing becomessince Section 8 recipients are guaranteed a rent no higher than 30 percent of their income.
Not surprisingly, caseload reduction in partial check sanction states has been far weaker than in states that kick people off the rolls for major rule violations, as documented by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. In full check sanction states, recipients realize that they may as well get a normal job and leave the rolls, because they cant refuse work activities and still collect welfare.
Intransigents get kicked off the rolls. Though they are free to reapply for welfare after a few months, most do not. In partial check sanction states, by contrast, the so-called happily sanctioned constitute a growing portion of the caseload, to the frustration of welfare directors, who see their progress against dependency grinding to a halt.
Congress should mandate full check sanctions for refusing work activities. TANF is about fostering in welfare recipients a sense of responsibility for their own self-betterment; partial sanctions violate that goal. Poverty advocates will sanctimoniously play the child card in opposing full sanctions: If you care about the children, the Childrens Defense Funds Deborah Weinstein told me, you wont push people off the rolls. Jesse Peraza, the welfare reform enthusiast in the Anaheim welfare office, has a sharp rejoinder to Weinsteins apologetics, typical of the no-excuses thinking of many welfare recipients. You cant just say: Dont send me the money; send it to my kids, he says reprovingly. Having that attitude, youll not get anywhere in life. If taxpayers in any given state want to support rule-violators indefinitely, they should do so without a federal subsidy.
A related, equally problematic category of non-work comes from the child-only cases. These are people who never signed up for the adult portion of the welfare check to begin with and are technically only collecting welfare for their children. Because in theory they are not themselves on welfare, they are not required to work.
Two groups of people tend to dominate the child-only category: people gaming the system to avoid work, and non-citizens. Laqia Parker fits into the first group. Wearing stiletto heels, tight leopard-skin-print pants, and lots of gold jewelry, Parker is storming the downtown Los Angeles welfare office to demand that her welfare case be reopened, even though she has repeatedly missed appointments with her caseworker. Parker collects welfare for her third child (she lost custody of the first two) and Supplemental Security Income (the greatly abused disability program for low-income non-workers) for herself, because of her mental disabilities. Could you get a job if you wanted? I asked her. Yeah, she shrugs. Parker demonstrates close knowledge of Californias welfare regime. Theyre not supposed to cut off the welfare, she explains impatiently, because I always just get it for the baby. As a child-only case, Parker lies outside the reach of welfare reform, because she is exempt from working.
Immigrants make up the other significant portion of child-only cases. TANF disqualified immigrants who entered the country after 1996 from receiving welfare benefits for five years after entry. There is far less to this ban than meets the eye, however. Immigrants children born in America, even if the parents are here illegally, do get welfare, since their birth makes them automatic citizens. In Orange County, California, nearly one-quarter of the caseload consists of child-only welfare cases, in most of which the parents are illegal aliens. County administrators foresee a time when the children of illegal immigrants will make up their entire caseload.
Like other child-only cases, immigrant parents of welfare recipients are not required to work. Congress should require work from the able-bodied caretakers in all child-only cases, including legal immigrants. Illegal immigrants who try to put their kids on welfare should be turned in to the INS and deported.
The second large area that Congress should address when it reauthorizes TANF is illegitimacy. So far, the widely publicized message of time limits and work requirements appears to have had a welcome effect on procreative and family behavior. The proportion of black children living with married parents increased four percentage points from 1995 to 2000, to 39 percent, according to one study. (This statistic does not distinguish whether both parents are biologically related to the child, however.) Teen pregnancies and births have been falling since 1991, when states began experimenting on their own with welfare reform. The decline accelerated after TANF passed in 1996. And the percentage of total births that are illegitimate has held relatively steady in recent years, after a vertiginous 50-year climb.
The question now is whether to declare victory and continue the welfare reform status quo, or to take on family formation directly. Arguing for business as usual are most county welfare directors and state governors. The welfare administrators point out that, although they admittedly ignored TANFs injunction to increase marriage and decrease illegitimacygoals that they regarded as intrusiveprocreative trends improved, anyway. That improvement occurred because they focused their efforts on the work program, they say, which made welfare less attractive and thus discouraged women from having children out of wedlock. It would be foolish, they argue, for Congress to mandate marriage programs, because no one has evidence that any social therapy program actually works.
Leading the charge for a more activist approach to family formation are Robert Rector and Patrick Fagan of the Heritage Foundation, along with other conservative and a few liberal analysts. If we merely declare victory over illegitimacy now, they say, wed consign millions of children to living with single parents, an arrangement shown to increase delinquency, truancy, foster-care placement, teen parenthood, and poverty. Since government already spends billions on the consequences of illegitimacy, these conservative activists say, why not divert a small fraction of that money to preventing family breakdown in the first place? Rector and Fagan propose allocating 10 percent of TANF dollars, or $1.5 billion annually, to such initiatives as marriage education in inner-city schools, mentoring for young couples, and a public ad campaign extolling the benefits of married parents for children. A new federal office would oversee the effort and measure the results.
It is impossible to disagree with the urgency motivating Rector and Fagans proposals. A leveling off or even a slow decline in the out-of-wedlock birthrate is nothing to be cheerful about, when a deplorable 33 percent of children nationally, and over twice as many black children, are still being born into households that put them at high risk for social failure. Moreover, without a radical increase in two-parent families, the rise in welfare mothers workforce participation will eventually slow significantly. States are already experiencing great difficulties keeping their newly employed single mothers in jobs, because single mothers face huge demands on their time from their children. The best way to improve their job stability and economic prospects is through marriage, not through the work-support programs that states are desperately cobbling together to help them cope.
But there are good reasons to hesitate before embarking on a government effort to re-create the traditional family, however critical that goal is to child well-being and a more civil society. Charging the federal government with the task of increasing the marriage rate will spawn a new social services industry teeming with hucksters. Most existing marriage and relationship-skills curricula for high schools feature a panoply of pop-psychological nonsense about I-scripts vs. you-scripts, anger rituals, personal empowerment skills, and love styles, as the Institute for American Values has devastatingly reported.
Not only are such spurious therapies nauseating in their own right, but they misdiagnose the disease. Marriage has not broken down because people have suddenly forgotten communication scripts for seeking permission to vent, as taught by the teen relationship course, PEERS PAIRS. Marriage has broken down because the taboos against illegitimacy and divorce have fallen before American cultures unremitting drive for individual self-fulfillment.
There is a certain Babes-in-the-Woods quality to proposals for marriage classes in the inner city. As sociologists Orlando Patterson and Kathryn Edin have shown, black male-female relations, especially among the poor, are in a state of crisis, despite the recent uptick in marriage. Mistrust, anger, and abuse are endemic. When I ask Beverley Robinson, the Brooklyn welfare caseworker, about relations between the sexes among her clients, she rolls her eyes and chuckles: Oh, chile, we could talk! The men degrade the women for being a welfare mother, she says, and then the next thing you know, two days before check day, theyre sweet-talking her. The men have babies with the women, then get arrested and leave them, Beverley explains. When theyre on the welfare budget, they drink and drug with the money.
Why dont the men get a job? I ask. She shakes her head. Theyre not working, she says, and their attitude is: Why the hell should I get a job? I get Medicaid. A lot of women tell me: Its more productive to be single. If I have a man underfoot, waiting for my check, it wont push me into a positive mode.
Its going to take more than marriage counselors to defuse these emotional land mines. Before government turns to therapists and relationship experts, it should make use of a far more powerful tool for strengthening marriage that is already in its possession: schooling. The schools could create more marriageable and marrying men than any number of counselors if they rededicated themselves to their civilizing mission. If teachers and principals insisted on courtesy, promptness, and the performance of obligations, and if they punished students who violated these expectations, society would be far along in re-creating the urban two-parent family. Studentsespecially boyswho have been trained to respect others will more likely end up as good husbands, fathers, and employees than students allowed to run wild in the typical inner-city school.
If Congress decides to legislate around the marriage issue, it should do so with the lightest possible touch. Its greatest effort should be through the bully pulpit. Public figures should affirm the importance of married parents for children; public service announcements, starring celebrities, should back up the message. Politicians should call on a wide range of community leaders, such as clergymen, to start talking about marriage and childreneven without a government contract to do so.
Whether the countrys elites, including those in government, will be willing to curb their appetite for divorcea precondition for speaking out non-hypocritically on childrens need for married parentsis sadly a doubtful prospect. Ironically, many among the welfare poor have a far more judgmental attitude toward out-of-wedlock child-rearing than do the elites, but they lack the determination to act on those and other conservative values, as sociologist Lawrence Mead writes in his upcoming book. A bully-pulpit campaign for marriage and responsibility would therefore find fertile ground where it is most needed.
As for organized marriage-promotion programs, ideally only private philanthropy would fund them, because taxpayer dollars should be spent only on things we know how to do, like build bridges and maintain public safety. But if government money is to be spent on programs promoting marriage, it should be spent only in tightly evaluated, well-designed demonstration projects before lawmakers pass any general mandate. And the more therapists a proposal entails, the poorer its chances for funding should be. In 1996, TANF committed $50 million a year to abstinence education; the resulting programs have not yet been evaluated. But it doesnt take an evaluation to know that any federal dollars going to sex education should be used to teach that procreation and child-rearing should occur only within marriage.
Congress should also reduce the so-called marriage penalties in a host of programs, from the Earned Income Tax Credit to the TANF two-parent work obligations. It should give married couples priority for government benefits; today, the opposite is usually the case.
Strengthening TANF in the ways Ive suggested will be difficult enough, given the opposition of the governors to additional mandates and of the advocates to anything smacking of greater personal responsibility. But, in addition, welfare advocates are already beating the drums for their own slate of changes, which Congress will have to defeat roundly if it wants to preserve the progress already made.
Youd expect that by now the poverty industry would have slunk out of sight, its tail between its legs. Its apocalyptic warnings about surging homelessness, starvation, and child abuse if Congress were to ask welfare recipients to work have proven spectacularly wrong. But instead of honorably disappearing, the advocates are gearing up for another assault. They are motivated by one central yearning: to turn welfare back into an unconditional right. The end of the welfare entitlement continues to trouble us, says Deborah Weinstein of the Childrens Defense Fund.
The advocates first line of attack will be against time limits, which send the message to recipientsunacceptably, from the advocates point of viewthat they are ultimately responsible for their own support. Already the liberal press is filled with anecdotes of well-intentioned recipients whom the cutoff will unfairly harm. Either lift the five-year time limit on welfare receipt entirely, say the poverty promoters, or stop the clock whenever a recipient is working some part of the week25 hours is now considered full-time.
Congress must hold firm in keeping the time limit intact. Nothing so focused the mind of welfare recipients as the five-year cutoff. To alter the message now would jeopardize the momentum of change in the welfare culture.
TANF gave states the option of exempting 20 percent of their caseload from the five-year time limita large enough exemption to cover people legitimately unable to work, even during a prolonged recession. Most people currently facing the time limit have been resisting the imperative to work for the last five years, while the economy was going gangbusters. Its a little late now to argue that there are no jobs. Many states panicked when the time limits grew near and handed out blanket exemptions; there is no evidence that people who have complied with all the job-search requirements are in danger of being kicked off the rolls. Other states, like New York, have created an entirely state-funded duplicate of welfare for the malingerers.
Pausing the time-limit clock for women who are working but still collecting welfare (because their wages are low) would also defeat the purpose of welfare reform. Welfare is not an income supplement; it is a safety net for people temporarily unable to support themselves. Allowing recipients to collect benefits indefinitely as long as they stay in a low-wage job returns welfare to lifelong entitlement status. The federal and state governments already provide generous earnings supplements through the Earned Income Tax Credit. Welfare should remain a stopgap measure.
In addition to fighting against time limits, the welfare rights lobby will also demand that education count toward TANFs work requirements. But it was precisely the emphasis on work, rather than disembodied training, that distinguished TANF from previous reform efforts and led to its success. In fact, despite the representations of the advocates, TANF is already sufficiently flexible to allow job-related education or training if it is in the best interests of a recipient. The advocates claim that TANF does not provide enough opportunity for self-improvement is ultimately aimed at torpedoing the work requirements.
The welfare promoters have a host of additional demands that would all move the system back toward a no-obligation trap. Congress must be particularly vigilant against two in particular: the drive to get immigrants back on welfare and the push to make poverty reduction a federal TANF goal.
The only thing noteworthy about TANFs provision disqualifying recent immigrants from welfare was that it was necessary at all. Immigrant sponsors must swear under oath that the immigrant will not become a public charge and accept liability if he does. Signing up for welfare upon arrival in the country, as many immigrants did before 1996, is a gross violation of the public charge promise. But until 1996, no one dared point out the contradiction. It remains one, however. Immigrants should remain ineligible for welfare for at least five years and unless they become citizens. Supporters of immigration have always argued that it adds ambitious and enterprising people to the workforce, but the argument only holds true if there is no entitlement to welfare to attract the dependent rather than the industrious.
The welfarists also want to impose on states the goal of reducing povertysome proposals call for at least a 50 percent reduction in child poverty over the next ten years. This proposal grows from wounded self-esteem. Having disastrously predicted skyrocketing poverty from welfare reform, the welfarists have hurriedly created a different benchmark for judging its success. Their new rap against TANF is that, though poverty fell substantially, it did not fall quickly enough. But this is merely to change the subject to distract attention from how completely the drop in poverty discredits their entire argument. Moreover, even had poverty merely remained constant while people moved from welfare to work, welfare reform could have been called a success, since those ex-welfare families would be on the road from dependency to self-reliance, not starving on a grate, as the advocates had predicted.
The poverty-reduction plank would only add useless new social programs to the federal budget. (Of course, the advocates are unwilling to promote the most efficient program for raising family income: marriage.) Ultimately, reducing poverty is an individuals responsibility. The government may rightly provide a safety net for people permanently or temporarily unable to care for themselves, and it should of course provide the necessary conditions for self-help, such as rigorous schools and safe neighborhoods. But it cannot create the self-discipline needed to move up the economic ladder.
TANF brought a 30-year experiment in social engineering to an end. The politicians and protesters who created no-obligation welfare in the 1960s believed that the best way to help the poorand, equally important, to demonstrate their own compassionwas to exempt them from the rules that the rest of society lives by. In 1996, Congress finally acknowledged the devastation this foolish experiment caused. It should now build on the progress made since then by strengthening TANFs architecture for self-sufficiency.