Will law stim­u­late wel­fare?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

When Pres­i­dent Obama signed the stim­u­lus law re­cently, he said it marked “the beginning of the end” of our na­tional eco­nomic trou­bles.

I must say, hav­ing read some protests about the law, I won­dered whether he also meant it was the beginning of the end of wel­fare re­form.

Two of my re­li­able sources — Robert Rec­tor at the Her­itage Foun­da­tion and Michael Tan­ner at the Cato In­sti­tute — have raised alarms that the new law will take the coun­try back to the bad old days when states got fed­eral dol­lars for ev­ery wel­fare re­cip­i­ent in their caseload.

I’m not sure the stim­u­lus bill is a “back­door un­do­ing” of the 1996 wel­fare re­form, as Mr. Tan­ner says, but I am con­cerned it will mess with suc­cess.

For decades, states sent poor peo­ple wel­fare checks and then asked Wash­ing­ton for a re­im­burse­ment. Wel­fare caseloads grew, since no one was overly mo­ti­vated to get a job or help any­body get a job.

The 1996 wel­fare re­form threw out that sys­tem. In­stead, Wash­ing­ton sent each state a fixed-but-fat check for its wel­fare ex­penses, and let them fig­ure out how to serve their poor.

If states (wisely) helped their poor pop­u­la­tions get jobs and be­come self-suf­fi­cient, states could keep their “ex­cess” wel­fare funds and use them for other low-in­come ser­vices.

More­over, the 1996 re­form came with a back­bone — an un­prece­dented time limit that said no adult could get more than 60 months of fed­eral wel­fare checks in his or her life­time.

The re­sult was stun­ning. When Pres­i­dent Clin­ton signed wel­fare re­form in Au­gust 1996, 12.3 mil­lion per­sons (4.4 mil­lion fam­i­lies) drew cash wel­fare. By De­cem­ber 2007, there were 3.8 mil­lion per­sons (1.6 mil­lion fam­i­lies) on pub­lic as­sis­tance — de­clines of 69 per­cent and 64 per­cent, re­spec­tively.

Sharon Par­rott of the Cen­ter on Bud­get and Pol­icy Pri­or­i­ties


has writ­ten a re­but­tal to Mr. Rec­tor and Mr. Tan­ner’s cri­tiques — the stim­u­lus law does not “un­der­mine” wel­fare re- form, she says. Based on th­ese think-tank salvos, I ex­pect wel­fare de­bates to mush­room again in Congress.

But I’d like to of­fer a sim­ple truth about wel­fare, based on my ex­pe­ri­ence cov­er­ing wel­fare since 1994.

Wel­fare is re­ally an “al­lowance.” Think of Un­cle Sam reach­ing into his big, big pocket and giv­ing you a cou­ple of dol­lars and some loose change.

Adults can­not live on an al­lowance. I’ll never for­get the Cam­den, N.J., mother of three who told me about her $210 a month in food stamps. “I can eat $210 worth of food stamps all by my­self. In a week!” she roared.

Wel­fare checks have never been some­thing to live on. They’ve al­ways been “as­sis­tance” or “sup­ple­ments” to other house­hold in­come. Wel­fare re­cip­i­ents know this, which is why they have al­ways worked un­der the ta­ble or done other things to “sup­ple­ment” their wel­fare.

The 1996 wel­fare-re­form law ended that de­ceit. Its new mes­sage of hope, backed up by the pre­vi­ous White Houses, plus state­houses and school houses, was: Wel­fare is lame, so go to school, get a de­gree, get a (real) job and try harder to avoid get­ting preg­nant again.

I, too, am ner­vous about Congress start­ing to pay states per head for wel­fare. But if Congress then seeks to jet­ti­son time lim­its, work rules and other in­no­va­tions when it re­news wel­fare re­form in 2010, it will in­deed be a sad “beginning of the end.”

Ch­eryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwet­zstein@wash­ing­ton­times.com.

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