Principled conservative lawmakers have been called many things as they doggedly pursue their quest for smaller government. In the House, liberals have resorted to using the “f” word -- “fringe” -- to describe small-government conservatives who have tried in vain to cut spending, eliminate frivolous earmarks, and reform failed welfare programs.
Others call them names. Recently, Rep. John Olver (D-Mass.) derided House conservatives as “jihadists” and “nihilists.” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said that “getting lectures on fiscal responsibility from the Republican Party is like getting lectures on animal welfare from [football star] Michael Vick.”
But even the most acerbic partisan must have recoiled at the vitriol Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) spewed during an otherwise routine floor debate. “This amendment is drastic,” he began. “It is costly. It is inefficient. It is impossible to administer.”
Then Scott moved in for the rhetorical kill. The amendment was “mean-spirited,” he said. “But not only is it mean-spirited. It is, indeed, bigoted … It is an insult to the Congress of the United States. And I submit it is … beneath the dignity of the Congress to even entertain this amendment.”
Why such unbridled animosity?
The amendment’s sponsor, mild-mannered Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), was taken aback. After all, he was only seeking to instill in the Section 8 housing voucher program the commonsense notion that “federal assistance should be temporary” and based on “work and self-sufficiency and responsibility and personal dignity.”
Specifically, Hensarling proposed a modest work requirement for able-bodied adults who have benefited from Section 8 housing assistance for seven years if they wish to continue receiving their $550, on average, monthly housing allowance. Section 8 is a federal program that allows low-income families to lease or purchase privately owned housing. His amendment also would have exempted mothers of young children who cannot secure adequate childcare from the work requirement.
Hensarling sought to extend the successful 1996 reform to federal housing programs. Under the old system, recipients weren’t required to engage in any significant activities to receive aid. This arrangement promoted idleness, single parenthood and poverty. The 1996 reforms, by contrast, required welfare recipients to engage in constructive activities such as supervised job search, training and community service. To the astonishment of liberal defenders of the old system, the new work requirement … well, worked. Welfare caseloads plummeted (from 5.1 million families in 1994 to 1.9 million families today), employment among single parents doubled, and child poverty fell to record lows.
Yet federal housing programs were untouched by the 1996 reforms. The failures of the old system are intact -- federal housing assistance is a one-way handout and recipients don’t have to work. Not surprisingly, the Census Bureau reports that 30% of households with children receiving federal housing aid don’t work at all and only a quarter of parents worked full-time (defined as 2,000 hours) through the year.
To Hensarling and other conservative lawmakers, the impact of requiring recipients of housing assistance to work for their benefit would be profound. As my colleague Robert Rector explains: “Once recipients are required to be continuously active rather than idle, they have a strong incentive to obtain employment. The indirect result is a surge in actual employment and a drop in poverty.”
Rep. Scott, though, sensed something sinister behind Hensarling’s effort to reduce poverty. “I understand messages,” he said mockingly, “and I understand this message” -- one aimed at those “who believe that certain people are categorized as wanting a handout, or that they are lazy, or that they do not want to work. So then the cry comes, before we can give them any help, make them work. Make them get a job.”
Sounds good to most Americans. Far from being a “fringe” position, reducing dependency on government programs is a mainstream American value. According to the Pew Research Center, 69% of Americans, including 61% of African-Americans, agree that “poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs.”
Though Hensarling’s effort fell short, it garnered a respectable 197 votes, including those of all but 6 Republicans and 13 mostly moderate Democrats.
Remarkably, a decade after the most successful domestic policy initiative in living memory, the race card remains in play. “When you run out of anything else to say,” Hensarling said, “you characterize someone else’s motivations and … use the term ‘bigoted.’ And that I regret.”