By all accounts, welfare reform has been one of the few unqualified success stories in modern public policy, despite the dire warnings issued at the time of its enactment. Now that the landmark 1996 welfare reform legislation is up for renewal, the critics are at it again with doom and gloom predictions. But the naysayers are just as wrong this time as they were before.
It's almost embarrassing to look back at what critics predicted when Congress passed welfare reform in 1996. Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) -- who derided Bill Clinton's support for welfare reform as "boob bait for Bubbas" -- said the legislation was "a social risk no sane person would take."
The Urban Institute predicted that the legislation might push an additional 1.1 million more children into poverty and make life more difficult for millions of others.
The National Organization for Women warned that President Bill Clinton made a "big, big mistake" by signing the bill. "I think it's going to dog him," an official for NOW predicted about the legislation that was one of Clinton's few lasting achievements as president.
And liberal columnist E.J. Dionne said at the time, "About the only hopeful thing you can say about this welfare bill rushed into law in an election-year spasm of dishonest rhetoric is that it won't work."
Well, it did work -- spectacularly so. Now, more than five years later, welfare rolls are down by more than half. But more importantly, welfare recipients who have moved off the dole and into jobs are teaching important lessons to the next generation. Seeing their moms as productive members of the work force will help poor children break the inter-generational dependency that was such a devastating consequence of the old welfare program.
Which brings us to the new "Chicken Littles" in the welfare reform debate. Building on the success of the 1996 legislation, the Bush administration has decided to expand work requirements in its proposed revisions to the welfare law. But some critics of the administration's proposals are once again warning that the sky is falling.
The administration's proposal will require that 70 percent of a state's welfare caseload be involved in "work activities" for 40 hours a week by 2008, up from the current requirement that 50 percent of the caseload engage in 30 hours of work activities. The administration's proposal also mandates that recipients spend 24 hours each week actually in a real job, up from the current requirement of 20 hours.
"Is this a more challenging standard?" asks Dr. Wade Horn, the Health and Human Services assistant secretary who is the administration's point man on welfare reform. "Yes, it's meant to be," Horn says. "But it's not Mission Impossible."
For example, recipients can spend up to three months in any 24-month period in programs that will help prepare them to enter the work force, including drug treatment, rehabilitation and training. The administration's bill will even give credit of up to 16 hours of the 40-hour "work activities" requirement for such things as volunteering for an after-school program, coaching a sports team or being a Scouts leader. This new provision encourages welfare parents to spend important and rewarding time with their children.
The administration's proposal is a big step forward in the effort to move people off of welfare and into productive roles in our society. For those recipients who take advantage of the child-friendly work activities requirement, it might even help them become better parents in the process.
Yet, for all its merits, the administration's bill has failed to gain much Democratic support in the House. What's more, a bipartisan group in the Senate is now attempting to water down the work requirements and increase funding for child care -- even though there are far fewer eligible recipients now that the welfare rolls have declined.
In the weeks ahead, expect plenty of posturing from administration critics as the welfare debate heats up. They were dead wrong in 1996, but that won't stop them from making the same baseless arguments in this new round of welfare reform.