An unheralded poverty warrior has passed away. Robert B. Carleson did more to shape welfare policy in this country over the past three decades but news of his death did not draw long, detailed obituaries in most major newspapers. Welfare “rights” organizations will not pay homage to this man whose work helped start many onetime welfare recipients on the path to self-sufficiency. It is not Politically Correct to identify conservatives who advocate work to be compassionate but millions of Americans owe Carleson a debt of gratitude for spearheading consistently the concept of workfare.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated: "Welfare is a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit." Time proved him correct, particularly as welfare programs had more liberal requirements. Generations of families had lost their sense of the work ethic, expecting a government check rather than payment from an employer. The perverse incentives of the welfare system were noted by Don Taylor, then Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, in a November/December 1996 POLICY REVIEW article, “Welfare Reform: Can the States Fly Solo?”
It is a useful time to review the career of Bob Carleson. Recently the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Family Assistance released statistics for FY 2004, assessing the progress made by States as to working welfare recipients. The results should be disheartening for voters in a number of States. The target work rate for “all families” on welfare, established in the reauthorization of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, is 50%. In Pennsylvania, only 7.1% of recipients from “all families’ were working in FY 2004. West Virginia (11.7%) did little better. Arizona (25.5%), Arkansas (27.3%), California (23.1%), Connecticut (24.3%), Delaware (22.1%), the District of Columbia (18.2%), Georgia (24.8%), Maryland (16.0%), Michigan (24.5%), Minnesota (26.8%), Mississippi (21.0%), Missouri (19.5%), North Dakota (25.3%), Rhode Island (23.7%), Utah (26.2%) and Vermont (24.9%) are laggards.