Until recently, welfare reform had been hailed as one of the most successful public policies of our lifetime. The bipartisan Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 turned federal public assistance into a temporary bridge to employment. It ended what had become a permanent class of welfare recipients and brought those who had become dependent on government aid into the world of work.
In the first ten years after the reform was enacted, the number of people receiving welfare fell by 60 percent. Most who moved off the welfare rolls transitioned into jobs. Some predicted that women and children would starve in the streets. That never happened, but 20 years later, welfare reform is again under attack by the same clique that opposed it in the first place. “Welfare as we knew it went away,” wrote Clyde Haberman recently in the New York Times. “But poverty as we know it never ended.” National poverty rates remain “stubbornly high” at 15 percent. This, according to Haberman, proves that welfare reform is a failure.
Haberman is way off base. Welfare reform advocates never claimed that it would eliminate poverty. Only 9 percent of those below the poverty line receive federal benefits, making welfare policy nearly incapable of solving the problem of long-term poverty. One can’t help but wonder: How would critics like Haberman judge the federal anti-poverty programs and bureaucracies established during the Johnson administration 50 years ago, whose explicit purpose was in fact to eliminate poverty? Over the course of half a century, despite the expenditure of $20 trillion on anti-poverty efforts by these agencies and programs, poverty rates, as Haberman notes, remain “stubbornly high.” Does Haberman support shutting them down? I doubt it.
Haberman also claims that the booming Clinton-era economy masked the serious hardships faced by those transitioning off welfare. “An economic slump at the start of the 21st century cost many of those newly employed mothers their jobs,” he writes. “Times got much rougher in the severe recession of 2007 and 2008.” He’s right that times got rough, but he’s wrong to blame welfare reform. Welfare caseloads have remained stable since the mid-1990s. Even during downturns there has been enough churn in the job market to open up employment opportunities for ex-welfare recipients.
Haberman’s final argument is that welfare reform must go because states like Arizona are reducing lifetime eligibility for benefits to as little as one year. Most welfare reform advocates don’t support such policies. The 1996 law limited participation to five years, which is appropriate. People need more than a year to get on their feet, and sometimes suffer setbacks. But welfare reform as a whole should not be gutted because of misguided policies in handful of states.
Increasingly, well-meaning elected officials and candidates are repeating the claim that welfare reform has failed. In fact, it has been uniquely successful at improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans. Welfare reform was built on the belief that public assistance should be time-limited and that work is the only long-term solution to poverty.
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