In 2004, The New York Times called welfare reform "one of the acclaimed successes of the past decade." But at the time, the same Gray Lady denounced it as "draconian." New Jersey's Sen. Frank Lautenberg predicated "children begging for food, 8- and 9-year old prostitutes." Sen. Ted Kennedy called it "legislative child abuse," and Connecticut's Sen. Chris Dodd denounced it as "unconscionable."
But 10 years later, what has actually happened? First, caseloads fell dramatically, dropping 60 percent between 1996 and 2004. The proportion of single mothers who held a job increased steadily to more than three-fifths, or about the same employment levels as married mothers. With little education, most took low-wage jobs. But their wages are supplemented by the Earned Income Tax Credit. And like other workers, their salaries rise with time. Only 8 percent of working single mothers who are high school dropouts earn the minimum wage.
In 2004, distinguished family scholar Andrew Cherlin announced after reviewing the evidence that he had changed his mind about workfare. Mothers, he said, "derive a basic dignity" from work, and "as a result of what I have seen, I now think the term 'dead-end job' is a label that often doesn't fit the perceptions of low-income workers, and I will not use it again."
What about the kids? Christopher Jencks and Scott Winship found "food insecurity" among single moms actually dropped between 1995 and 2000. Poverty rates among single mothers (and their children) are at all-time lows. Studies of children of former welfare mothers suggest little or no evidence of deleterious effects. The pessimists were wrong, but so were the optimists: The work of the mothers does not appear to translate in any direct way into better outcomes for children, on average. No worse, but no better either.
Welfare reform was associated with a sustained pause in the growth of illegitimacy, which does hurt children. But it has not reversed the long-term trend toward more children born outside of marriage.
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.