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McManus - Ethics & Religion

August 23, 2006
Column #1,304
Advance for August 26, 2006
Impact of Welfare Reform after Ten Years
by Michael J, McManus

President Clinton pledged to "end welfare as we know it" when elected in 1992. But he vetoed two Welfare Reform bills before signing one in August, 1996, just before his re-election.

Arguably, no law has had such a positive national impact since passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act.  Between 1970 and 1996, federal aid to the poor tripled, yet the percentage of black children in poverty remained stubbornly at the 40 percent level. Why?

Welfare was given with only two rules: a mother could not work and she could not be married to an employed man. "It was an incentive system from hell," argued Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, and the primary architect of Welfare Reform, known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

He says, "It created a sea change, by replacing one-way handouts with reciprocal obligations.  Handouts had bred a climate of dependence. In exchange for benefits, government now requires constructive behavior to move out of poverty by working." And rather than prolonged dependence, benefits were limited to a total of five years.

Sen. Pat Moynihan called the law, "The most brutal act of social policy since reconstruction." He predicted "Those involved will take this disgrace to their graves."

Marion Wright Edelman, President of the Children's Defense Fund, called the law "an outrage...that will hurt and impoverish millions of American children." Even the sober, thoughtful Urban Institute predicted the law would push 2.6 million people into poverty, including 1.1 million children.

Edelman's husband, Peter Edelman, resigned his position as Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services predicting a wide disaster: "There will be more malnutrition and more crime, increased infant mortality," and would fail even in promoting work because "there simply are not enough jobs now."

What really happened?

Jason Turner, who ran New York City's program tells of a woman applying for TANF, who heard the new rules, shook her head saying, "I might as well take a job." Exactly.

The number of families on the dole dropped from 4.3 million to 1.89 million, a 56 percent plunge.  However, no one, not even Robert Rector, predicted such a sharp decline.
Did that push millions into poverty? No. There are 1.6 million fewer children in poverty, with the greatest decreases among black children, falling from 41.5 percent in 1995 to 32.9 percent in 2004. That is nationally unprecedented. Further, dependence fell most sharply among young never-married mothers with low levels of education and young children.

"This is dramatic confirmation that welfare reform affected the whole welfare caseload, not merely the most employable mothers," Rector testified recently.

Some critics noted that the poverty rate has risen in recent years, which is true.  But it fell from 23 percent of the nation below the poverty line in 1996 to 16 percent in 2000, and did move slightly back up to 18 percent in 2004.

One weakness of the original law was that each state could define what it meant by work. Some called bed rest, or attending smoking cessation classes or motivational reading as work. This year, the Administration did persuade Congress to make sure that work is what most Americans believe it is, and required that at least half of the caseload be working.  Critics said this was setting the "bar too high."  But since 2002, Georgia has gone from 8 percent participating in work to 67 percent.

States largely ignored provisions of the original law to take steps to "prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock births," and "encourage the formation and maintenance of two parent families." So the new law specifically set aside $100 million a year that must be spent to strengthen marriage, the first dedicated funding stream to help create healthy marriages.

This year Ohio did set aside one percent of its $1.2 billion TANF budget to strengthen marriage and families, $12 million. This week marriage activists in other states began to mobilize to pressure their states to adopt a similar ONE PERCENT SOLUTION modeled on Ohio.

Present divorce law makes divorce too easy to get.  If one person alleges the marriage is "irreconcilable," the other spouse can make no defense to stop the divorce.  Most divorces are filed by women because they know they can usually get child custody.

The solution? "Whoever is the creator of the divorce does not get the child," argued Eloise Anderson, who ran welfare in Wisconsin and California, at a Heritage Foundation meeting. At least joint custody should replace sole custody, as I argued last week, to give kids better access to fathers, greater financial support, and less likelihood their parents will divorce.

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