Ten years af­ter, wel­fare re­form­ers look to build on gains

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Ch­eryl Wet­zstein

Ten years ago on Aug. 22, Pres­i­dent Clin­ton signed the land­mark wel­fare-re­form law in a Rose Gar­den cer­e­mony as beam­ing Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic co-au­thors looked on. Out­side­theWhiteHouse, hun­dreds of lib­eral anti-poverty ad­vo­cates protested what they called Mr. Clin­ton’s be­trayal of poor chil­dren, and sev­eral Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion lead­ers quit in protest.

As the next stage of wel­fare re­form be­gins Oct. 1, with the start of the new fis­cal year, there are fewer pub­lic protests and less talk about poor chil­dren forced to sleep on city grates. But­there is still high­anx­i­ety in some quar­ters over new wel­fare rules, which­were signed into law in Fe­bru­ary by Pres­i­dent Bush.

Re­form sup­port­ers say the new rules “re­boot” the sys­tem and will lead to even­great­er­achieve­mentsin pro­mot­ing work and stable fam­ily re­la­tion­ships, in­clud­ing mar­riage.

New “com­mon sense” work def­i­ni­tions will steer more adults to­ward pre­par­ing for work, search­ing for work or land­ing jobs — “the only ac­tiv­i­ties that can lead you not just out of wel­fare de­pen­dency, but out of poverty as well,” said Wade F. Horn, as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for chil­dren and fam­i­lies in the De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices (HHS).

New$150 mil­lion-a-year fund­ing streams for fam­ily strength­en­ing are both a wel­fare-pre­ven­tion and wel­fare-in­ter­ven­tion strat­egy, added Mr.Horn.“When chil­dren are born in the­con­text of a stable and­healthy mar­riage,the­yare sig­nif­i­cantly less likely to be poor and sig­nif­i­cantly less likely to be in need of wel­fare.”

But oth­ers think the new re­forms still miss the mark. The new work rules dis­al­low seek­ing a fouryear col­lege de­gree as a “core” work ac­tiv­ity, said Bar­bara Gault, vice pres­i­dent and di­rec­tor of re­search at the In­sti­tute for Women’s Pol­icy Re­search (IWPR).

This is “very, very dis­ap­point­ing” as “higher ed­u­ca­tion is the strong­est route” out of poverty and low-wage jobs, she said, not­ing that are­cen­tIWPRs­tudy­found that low­in­come women who fin­ished col­lege raised their me­dian in­comes from$7.50an­hourto$13.14an­hour and of­ten found­ca­reers in busi­ness, health care and so­cial work.

A “wel­fare vic­tory lap” is un­de­served, Rep. Jim McDer­mott, Wash­ing­ton Demo­crat, told a re­cent hear­ing be­fore the HouseWays and Means Com­mit­tee. Repub­li­cans shouldn’t be cel­e­brat­ing wel­fare re­form while there is stag­na­tion in the value of the Earned In­come Tax Credit, the min­i­mum wage and spend­ing on work sup­ports for sin­gle moth­ers, he said.

Look­ing back, Amer­ica’s dis­en­chant­ment with the 1960s “War on Poverty” pro­grams reached its zenith in the 1990s. De­spite the pro­grams’ good in­ten­tions, grind­ing poverty, un­em­ploy­ment and low wages— es­pe­cially among­mi­nor­ity males—aswellascrime,sub­stance abuse­an­dun­wed­child­bear­ing­grew un­abated.

The av­er­age stay on wel­fare was eight years, with many moth­ers re­ly­ing on­wel­farechecks for 13 years, stud­ies found. Tales of fraud, abuse and in­do­lent, baby-mak­ing“wel­fare queens” abounded, as did com­plaints about the sky­rock­et­ing costs of wel­fare.

Wel­fare re­form was a peren­nial leg­isla­tive is­sue dur­ing the 1980s and 1990s, but no mat­ter what Congress did, caseloads grew, peak­ing at 14.2 mil­lion peo­ple in 1994. A wa­ter­shed mo­ment came when Mr. Clin­ton of­fered his 1992 cam­paign prom­ise to “end wel­fare as we know it.” Mo­men­tum was also build­ing in the states, where dozens of gov­er­nors, led by Wis­con­sin’s Gov. Tommy Thompson, were us­ing fed­eral waivers to re­vamp their wel­fare pro­grams.

Mr. Clin­ton’s ini­tial wel­fare re­form — which would have cost an ex­tra$9 bil­lion — fell to the­way­side. House Repub­li­cans seized the mo­ment and in­cluded wel­fare re­form in their Con­tract With Amer­ica, the ban­nerun­der­whichthep­ar­tyswept into power in 1994.

The re­sult­ing 1996 Per­sonal Re­spon­si­bil­ity and Work Op­por­tu­nity Rec­on­cil­i­a­tionAct­passed­with­strong bi­par­ti­san­sup­por­t­and­was­signedby Mr. Clin­ton on Aug. 22, af­ter hav­ing ve­toed two ear­lier ver­sions.

Un­der the 1996 law, states re­ceived fixed (rather than un­lim­ited) fed­eral funds in ex­change for flex­i­bil­ity in de­sign­ing their own­wel­fare pro­gram­swithin fed­eral guide­lines. There was a new five-year limit on fed­eral wel­fare checks and a man­date for states to as­sist wel­fare re­cip­i­ents topre­pare for, find and­keep jobs — or lose their ben­e­fits. “Work first” was the new mantra.

Thewel­fare­caseload­plum­meted by more than 60 per­cent or nearly 10 mil­lion peo­ple. As of De­cem­ber 2005, which ended the first quar­ter of fis­cal 2006, the caseload stood at 4.3 mil­lion re­cip­i­ents and 1.8 mil­lion fam­i­lies, ac­cord­ing to HHS.

Repub­li­cans and their al­lies are proud of the 1996 re­form, which­has also re­sulted in a lower rate of child poverty and higher rate of em­ploy­ment among sin­gle moth­ers. The wel­fare-re­form de­bate showed “how ‘we the peo­ple’ can bring about pro­found change that dra­mat­i­cally im­proves the lives of mil­lions of our fel­low cit­i­zens,” for­mer House Speaker Newt Gin­grich told there­cen­tWaysandMeans hear­ing.

Be­fore 1996, un­wed child­bear­ing rates were grow­ing at a rate that would have taken them to 42 per­cent of all live births by 2003, Her­itage Foun­da­tion wel­fare an­a­lyst Robert Rec­tor said in his House hear­ing tes­ti­mony. How­ever, the wel­fare de­bate, with its fo­cus on per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity, work and time-lim­ited wel­fare, helped slow the growth of the il­le­git­i­macy rate, he said. To­day, just un­der­35per­cent of births are out of wed­lock, a rel­a­tively mod­est in­crease com­pared with the 32 per­cent fig­ure in 1996.

Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion schol­arRon Hask­ins, a for­mer Repub­li­can House staff mem­ber who has writ­ten a new book about his front-row seat at the wel­fare de­bates, noted that the 1996 re­form also strength­ened child-sup­port­en­force­ment,ex­panded fund­ing for ab­sti­nence ed­u­ca­tion,made it eas­ier for faith-based groups to pro­vide wel­fare ser­vices and ended wel­fare checks to newly ar­rived im­mi­grants as well as to pris­on­ers and sub­stance abusers.

“Taken to­gether, th­ese re­forms con­sti­tute the most fun­da­men­tal change in Amer­i­can so­cial pol­icy since the So­cial Se­cu­rity Act of 1935,” Mr. Hask­ins wrote in “Work Over Wel­fare: The Inside Story of the 1996 Wel­fare Re­form Law.”

Notev­ery­one,how­ever,view­sthe 1996 law as an un­bri­dled suc­cess, nor do they see im­proved ben­e­fits for poor peo­ple in the new re­forms, which were passed as part of the Deficit Re­duc­tion Act of 2005.

At the Ways and Means hear­ing, Mr. McDer­mott and his col­leagues pointed out that child-poverty rates have started to climb since 2000. Many moth­ers who have left the wel­fare rolls are “not bet­ter off” — they’re standingin lines at churches, get­ting food and ser­vices to sup­port their fam­i­lies, said Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Ohio Demo­crat.

The wel­fare sys­tem has be­come dif­fi­cult for poor fam­i­lies to en­ter — “more fam­i­lies are fall­ing into the ‘no work,no wel­fare’ cat­e­gory,” said Sharon Par­rott of the lib­eral Cen­ter on Bud­get and Pol­icy Pri­or­i­ties.

Other crit­ics fault the1996law for chas­ing poor women out of schools and into low-pay­ing jobs while their chil­dren are sent into low-qual­ity child care. Child-care fund­ing is woe­fully in­ad­e­quate — only one in seven el­i­gi­ble chil­dren­re­ceives sub­si­dies, warn­groupssuchas­theCen­ter for Lawand So­cial Pol­i­cyandthe Chil­dren’s De­fense Fund.

Amid the pol­icy de­bates, wel­fare moth­ers such as Yolanda Britt con­tinue their day-by-day fight to achieve self-suf­fi­ciency.

Miss Britt, 35 and the mother of three, en­tered the Dis­trict of Columbia’s wel­fare sys­tem in 2002 af­ter leav­ing an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship. She has fin­ished classes in med­i­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion at the So Oth­ers Might Eat’s Cen­ter for Em­ploy­men­tTrain­ingan­d­ex­pects to be em­ployed soon and off wel­fare within the year.

Miss Britt never ex­pe­ri­enced the “un­lim­ited” wel­fare of the old sys­tem, but says she doesn’t mind that theTem­po­raryAs­sis­tance­forNeedy Fam­i­lies (TANF) ben­e­fits are lim­ited. “Tem­po­rary is just that,” she said. “I know that it’s go­ing to end.”

She is grate­ful for the many ef­forts aimed at help­ingher­leavewel­fare and get a good job. “Noth­ing is more grat­i­fy­ing than to walk into a gro­cery story with my own money, rather than a TANF card,” she said.

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