Welfare reform at ten

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Apr 25, 2006 8:05 PM
This year is the 10th anniversary of the 1996 welfare reform bill. Kay Hymowitz marks the occasion in the current issue of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal by asking a penetrating question: "How is it that so many intelligent, well-intentioned people, including many experts who made up the late 20th century's Best and Brightest, were so mistaken?"

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.

The critics, concludes Hymowitz, were badly wrong about welfare reform because they underestimate how much culture matters. Welfare reformists, by contrast, argued the way to improve the lives of poor, unwed mothers was to get them to adopt bourgeois habits, like work and marriage.

We've succeeded with the former, but it may be in the long run the latter that matters more for children. Here Hymowitz relapses into the pessimism of the right: Welfare reform can encourage work, but the government cannot do much to help poor mothers make and sustain good marriages. But the Bush marriage initiative, relentlessly opposed by the same people who fought welfare form, is a tool for encouraging civil society to do what Hymowitz says is necessary: Educate the next generation of young people about the importance of marriage for themselves and their children.

Check back in 10 years. The marriage initiative may fail, in which case a several hundred-million-dollar effort to address our most important social problem in a trillion-dollar federal budget will have been wasted. If it succeeds, in 10 years there will be a network of inner-city churches offering scientifically validated programs that actually succeed in helping young people make and sustain decent, loving marriages.

If this happens, it will not be because conservative public intellectuals exhorted them in urban journals to do so. It will be because George Bush decided in his stubborn way to do something good, even if it had no profound public constituency.