WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The welfare reform bill of 1996 is now widely recognized to be a tremendous success. Thus, allow me to render a prophesy. Over the next few weeks, we shall hear ululation throughout the republic: poor children at risk, unwed mothers in grim straits, poor people everywhere living under conditions that only Charles Dickens could describe -- all because of the welfare reform bill of 1996. The reason we can expect this forthcoming chorus of lamentation is that the very successful welfare reform bill is up for renewal in 2002. Many old welfare hands do not want it renewed.
They are going to have a difficult time making their case, but they will have some conservatives on their side. There will be an alliance of welfare's most ardent opponents and die-hard advocates. The conservatives are going to try to bring welfare back to Washington, where they believe they can make its requirements more stringent. Welfare's advocates believe that bringing it back to Washington will give them the opportunity to kill it off and advance to pure socialism. My guess is that they know the Washington bureaucracy better than the conservatives.
When the 1996 bill was passed, such students of welfare as Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted that the very poor would be removed from the welfare rolls and thrown into the street. That has not happened. What has happened is that the social pathologies associated with welfare have diminished, hence the applause from observers left, right and center. In poor neighborhoods, there has been a substantial decrease in crime, drug abuse, teen pregnancy and the incidence of unwed mothers heading households. Moreover, among the very poor, marriage is increasing and employment is up. Moynihan was wrong.
It is perfectly understandable that welfare advocates want to end welfare reform, despite the evidence that welfare increases dependency and social pathologies among the poor. These supposedly compassionate reformers want a return to pre-1996 welfare, for that welfare was a stepping stone to their ideal society, a society with a guaranteed income for all. Behind the mask of every welfare advocate is the face of a socialist.
In the 1960s, 1970s, and even the 1980s, they had been making progress in realizing their goal of a guaranteed national income and, with it, vast income redistribution. Their first step had been to nationalize welfare. The Nixon administration's Family Assistance Plan, devised by President Nixon's domestic policy adviser, Moynihan, was welfare's high watermark. Since its failure, the tide began to run out for welfare. It was becoming apparent that a guaranteed national income was catastrophically expensive, and evidence had accumulated that all the social pathologies associated with dependency and family breakup would get worse. Welfare began to attract even more critics.
What happened next to set the stage for reforming welfare and still providing benefits for the very poor is explained by Robert Carleson, Governor Ronald Reagan's welfare director who went on to become U.S. Welfare Commissioner in 1973. Upon becoming president, Reagan (through Carleson) managed to tighten welfare requirements and permit work for benefits. That was not sufficient, however, to reduce the steady growth of the welfare population, because the federal government up until 1996 paid grants matching the state's expenditure for welfare. Thus, if the states cut welfare, they lost federal money.
The key to the success of the 1996 welfare reform has been the elimination of federal-matching grants to the states. Instead, they now receive block grants for dealing with the very poor at the local level where the needs of local poor are better understood. "With the new program," Carleson explained in The Washington Times, "a state that required work and removed non-needy families from the rolls would get to keep the federal money saved instead of losing it." That was an incentive to close down welfare while still assisting the very needy.
The 1996 reform, based on 20 years of steady experimentation with welfare, has allowed money for those in dire need. It has made welfare's able-bodied self-sufficient and reduced the anti-social conditions that come with welfare dependency. This system is not broken. It does not need to be fixed. Conservatives who want to centralize welfare in Washington ought to remain true to their federalist principles and leave welfare to the states. Opening the issue will give masked socialists their opportunity to begin again on the road to guaranteed annual income. Welfare advocates ought to remain true to their principles of compassion for the poor. Today, they are better off than before the 1996 reform. What is more, the evidence of recent reforms is that a guaranteed national income would return poor neighborhoods to dependency's pathologies.