Welfare reform works

Rich Lowry
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Posted: Apr 05, 2004 12:00 AM

 How is this for a historic reversal? Last week, Senate Democrats successfully filibustered the nation's most important anti-poverty measure -- welfare reform. It is thus Democrats who are effectively opposed to lifting people out of poverty and, in the process, make insulting assumptions about minorities, particularly minority women.
 
   The success of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act is now so well-established that its liberal doubters are increasingly pathetic flat-earthers. Welfare rolls nationwide have fallen by roughly 60 percent since the mid-1990s. Rolls have continued to decline despite the 2001 recession, in some states significantly. Since January 2001, when the downturn was taking hold, the number of families on welfare has dropped 45 percent in Illinois and 39 percent in New York.

    This data has left liberals dazed and confused. As an official at the Center for Law and Social Policy said, "One of the great mysteries of social policy in the last few years is why welfare caseloads have stayed essentially flat or declined in much of the country, despite the economic downturn." If we apply Occam's razor to this "mystery," the explanation is that single moms are perfectly capable of caring for themselves and their children, if that's what is expected of them. Young minority women aren't as helpless as their liberal advocates would have us believe. Mystery solved!

    Critics of welfare reform had argued that the boom of the late 1990s, not welfare reform, sent former recipients into the work force. This was always implausible. In the previous nine economic booms since the 1950s, caseloads were stagnant or increased. Why would that suddenly change in the mid- and late-1990s? Hmmm.

    During the recession of the early 1990s, the national caseload rose by more than 30 percent. In light of that, what has happened in the first post-reform downturn is stunning.

    According to Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution, the percentage of never-married mothers in the work force increased from 47.9 percent in 1996 to 65.8 percent in 2000. In 2002, after the recession, the percentage was still at 65.8 percent. (Slate's Mickey Kaus has highlighted these numbers.) These women must have gained employment skills and work habits that helped see them through tough times.

    Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation reports that during most recessions, poverty has dramatically increased among black children and single parents, two particularly vulnerable populations. During this recession, the increase in poverty among both groups was slight, and the black child poverty rate is still near its all-time low from 2001. Liberals said welfare reform would greatly increase child poverty even during good times and create an utter disaster during a recession. Wrong on both counts.

    Doubters have now flipped their anti-reform argument and contend that the very lack of any increase in welfare dependence shows welfare is failing to help those hurt by the recession. But keeping people off the rolls is a good thing in itself. If someone is on welfare, he or she is by definition poor because no state offers benefits generous enough to lift a recipient out of poverty.

    Much remains to be done in the welfare reform reauthorization that Democrats are now stalling. A reform bill must re-establish tough work requirements. States had to reduce their caseloads or get recipients into work programs under the 1996 act. So many people left the rolls, states easily met their requirements and now are unburdened by any obligation to make recipients do anything. Sixty percent of the current caseload is idle.

    The reauthorization should also include spending for marriage-promotion programs. Nudging unmarried low-income couples into marriage is crucial to reducing child poverty and welfare dependence. This is not a pipe dream. Surveys show that three-quarters of unmarried expectant mothers are romantically involved with the father of their child around the time of the child's birth. The same people who said young minority women couldn't work now say they can't marry.

    The next chapter in the ongoing transformation of America's poor remains to be written -- as soon as Democrats get out of the way.