Gather round, children, and listen to a story about the kinds of news that used to preoccupy Americans before war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, terrorism, a nearly stolen election and Monica Lewinsky.
Before those massive earthquakes hit America, we spent a good deal of time, passion and heat debating other matters -- some trivial, some not.
One of the hardest-fought issues of the 1990s was welfare reform. Republicans lobbied for reform; Democrats, including the putatively pro-reform President Clinton, stoutly resisted. Conservatives argued that welfare had become not a safety net but a hammock -- that millions of children were growing up in chaotic, unstable and permanently poor homes at least in part because the federal government was subsidizing unwed motherhood.
Liberals countered that reformers were misers, perfectly willing to lavish "corporate welfare" on the rich but overly eager to punish society's poorest members. They predicted that reform would create a Dickensian world of paupers, featuring women and children sleeping under bridges. With an election looming and persuaded that a third veto might damage his chances of victory, the president signed a welfare reform law.
That was 1996. In the period since, we've seen perhaps the greatest public policy success since the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and yet it is hardly mentioned. But then, it's not really surprising that some people want to change the subject.
After all, groups like the Children's Defense Fund and the Urban Institute have been proved badly mistaken. As Heritage Foundation scholars Robert Rector and Patrick Fagan note, the CDF predicted that the welfare reform law would lead to increases in "child poverty nationwide by 12 percent ... make children hungrier ... (and) reduce the incomes of one-fifth of all families with children in the nation." The Urban Institute issued a report forecasting that the new law would push 2.6 million people into poverty, 1.1 million of them children.
Instead, since the law was enacted, welfare caseloads have been cut in half. The poverty rate has fallen from 13.8 percent in 1995 to 11.7 percent in 2001. Some of this may have been the good economy (though welfare case loads continued to rise during the '80s boom), but even during the current recession, welfare dependence has continued to decline.