The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, known as Welfare Reform, has been cheered as a stunning achievement of the Republican Congress and its Contract With America. The law helped to move millions of welfare recipients out of dependency and into productive jobs, but its unintended consequences brought many thousands of "never welfare" families into the welfare bureaucracy.
Financial incentives are often built into tax credits, reductions or bonuses to influence human behavior in home ownership, energy, water, transportation, and waste management. But sometimes the law contains incentives that were not planned, expected or desirable.
The Great Society welfare system was recognized by the 1990s as a social disaster that created fatherless children, illegitimacy and women's dependency on government. Channeling taxpayer handouts to mothers provided a powerful financial incentive for fathers to depart; they were not needed anymore.
Unfortunately, policy changes in the 1988 and 1996 welfare laws created similar financial incentives for state governments to exclude middle-class fathers from the home. The law incentivized the states to manufacture "noncustodial" (i.e., absent) fathers and to order money transfers (usually through wage garnishment) to mothers, thereby putting a large segment of the middle class under the welfare bureaucrats.
The major goal of the 1996 Welfare Reform was to reduce the budget deficit by, among other things, recovering welfare costs from absentee fathers. Without justification or public debate, the rules to accomplish this were then applied to middle-class "never welfare" families.
Formerly, to receive welfare benefits, recipients had to demonstrate eligibility by "need" (i.e., a test measured by income level), but the new policy omitted income eligibility requirements. Without a means test, a high-income mother with custody can use the power of the state to collect from a low-income father.
The federal government annually provides $4.2 billion in block grants to states to serve as collection agencies. States are reimbursed for 66 percent of their costs of child support enforcement activities, 80 percent of their costs for technology, and 66 percent of their costs of DNA testing for paternity.
The more cases the states can create and the more operational expenses they incur, the more federal funding states receive to expand their welfare bureaucracy. No performance standards are required to get this money and, in addition, the feds provide a bonus fund ($458 million in Fiscal 2006) for which the states compete.
Phyllis Schlafly is a national leader of the pro-family movement, a nationally syndicated columnist and author of Feminist Fantasies.
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read Phyllis Schlafly‘s column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.