The good news coming out of the war in Iraq this week has crowded out another important story that should be front-page news. Landmark welfare reform legislation passed by Congress in 1996 not only worked to reduce welfare rolls but actually lifted millions of poor, single mothers out of poverty, according to a new study by two distinguished economists.
"Gaining Ground, Moving Up: The Change in the Economic Status of Single Mothers Under Welfare Reform," by June O'Neill and M. Anne Hill, shows that the poverty rate among single mothers has dropped by about 20 percent, even after the collapse of the economic boom of the 1990s. It's too bad this story may get lost in the media's near total absorption in the war because it points the way to improve the lives of millions of poor Americans.
Ever since Congress passed welfare reform, liberals have been attempting to explain away its success. At first they claimed the new law would impoverish millions of children as their mothers were forced off the dole and into low-paying, dead-end jobs. Three high-level Clinton appointees actually resigned their jobs when President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law, arguing that the legislation would throw an additional 1,000,000 children into poverty. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan chastised the bill's supporters, saying, "Those involved will take this disgrace to their graves."
But Moynihan and others proved to be wrong. Poverty rates actually went down after welfare reform passed, not up, as more single women left welfare rolls and took jobs. Liberal skeptics then attributed the nation's declining poverty rate to the booming economy. Women on welfare always wanted to work, liberals claimed, there just weren't any jobs out there for them to take. When the jobs became plentiful, welfare moms were happy to take them, said the anti-welfare reform crowd. Once again, they were mostly wrong.
According to O'Neill and Hill, welfare reform played a far bigger role than a good economy in encouraging single moms off welfare rolls and into jobs. Welfare reform was the largest single factor responsible for increasing single mothers' work participation from 1996 to 2001, accounting for some 40 percent of the increase, while only about 9 percent of the gains were attributable to an improved economy.
Remarkably, poor women who took jobs didn't end up in minimum wage jobs for long either. On average, single mothers earned $11.60 an hour in 2001 -- a recession year -- considerably above the minimum wage. Among single moms who left welfare after 1994, each extra year they worked between 1994 and 1998 produced an additional 2 percent in hourly pay after adjusting for inflation. If they stayed with the same employer, they earned another 1 percent per year on top of the 2 percent.
It isn't just poor women who benefited either. According to another study by researchers at Northwestern University, published last month, welfare reform has actually improved the social development of children whose moms left welfare to take jobs. According to this study, adolescents improved their sense of self-worth when their mothers went to work as their mothers became less depressed and anxious.
Given welfare reform's enviable record -- it clearly is one of the most successful pieces of social legislation of the last 50 years -- you might think liberals would be jumping on the bandwagon to endorse the bill's reauthorization. Think again.
Legislation to extend the law and toughen the very work requirements that have proved so valuable recently passed the House of Representatives. The House bill would require states gradually to move an increasing percentage of their caseload from welfare to work from the current 50 percent to 70 percent, and increase the number of hours recipients would be required to work or be enrolled in training programs from 30 to 40. But only 11 Democrats voted for the measure, which still faces a battle in the Senate.
It's as if liberals would rather keep single mothers poor and dependent on public largess than admit that tough love works -- and that's a story Americans shouldn't miss, war or no war.