Domestic good news

Posted: Apr 29, 2003 12:00 AM

Gather round, children, and listen to a story about the kinds of news that used to preoccupy Americans before war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, terrorism, a nearly stolen election and Monica Lewinsky.

Before those massive earthquakes hit America, we spent a good deal of time, passion and heat debating other matters -- some trivial, some not.

One of the hardest-fought issues of the 1990s was welfare reform. Republicans lobbied for reform; Democrats, including the putatively pro-reform President Clinton, stoutly resisted. Conservatives argued that welfare had become not a safety net but a hammock -- that millions of children were growing up in chaotic, unstable and permanently poor homes at least in part because the federal government was subsidizing unwed motherhood.

Liberals countered that reformers were misers, perfectly willing to lavish "corporate welfare" on the rich but overly eager to punish society's poorest members. They predicted that reform would create a Dickensian world of paupers, featuring women and children sleeping under bridges. With an election looming and persuaded that a third veto might damage his chances of victory, the president signed a welfare reform law.

That was 1996. In the period since, we've seen perhaps the greatest public policy success since the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and yet it is hardly mentioned. But then, it's not really surprising that some people want to change the subject.

After all, groups like the Children's Defense Fund and the Urban Institute have been proved badly mistaken. As Heritage Foundation scholars Robert Rector and Patrick Fagan note, the CDF predicted that the welfare reform law would lead to increases in "child poverty nationwide by 12 percent ... make children hungrier ... (and) reduce the incomes of one-fifth of all families with children in the nation." The Urban Institute issued a report forecasting that the new law would push 2.6 million people into poverty, 1.1 million of them children.

Instead, since the law was enacted, welfare caseloads have been cut in half. The poverty rate has fallen from 13.8 percent in 1995 to 11.7 percent in 2001. Some of this may have been the good economy (though welfare case loads continued to rise during the '80s boom), but even during the current recession, welfare dependence has continued to decline.

Nearly 3 million children have risen out of poverty since 1995, and the decreases in child poverty have been most pronounced among black children. The overall child poverty rate was 20.8 percent in 1995, compared with 16.3 percent in 2001. And in 2001, despite a poor economy, the poverty rate among black children reached its lowest point in history.

To appreciate the steep and sudden decline after 1996, picture a graph with a fairly steady line hovering between 40 percent and 46 percent for 25 years. Black child poverty was actually higher in 1983 than in 1970. Then, after about 1994 (which predates the actual reform law but not the national discussion of it), the graph plunges down to 30 percent. Still too high to be sure, but considered out-of-reach less than a decade ago.

The post-reform period has also seen dramatic reductions in child hunger, with an estimated 1.2 percent of children suffering hunger in 1995 compared with 0.6 percent in 2001.

The children of single mothers are significantly better off after welfare reform. As a Manhattan Institute study "Gaining Ground" makes clear, single mothers' cash income increased by 21 percent between 1995 and 2000, even after averaging in those reporting zero income. The poverty level for single mothers accordingly fell from 41.9 percent in 1996 to 33.6 percent in 2001. Even among the so-called hard cases -- single mothers who are black or Hispanic, high school dropouts and never married -- the poverty rate fell by 17 percent.

The study also found that the longer single moms remained off welfare, the better they fared economically, with an average pay increase of 2 percent a year (and 3 percent for those who remained with the same employer).

Finally, the rate of out-of-wedlock childbearing, rising steadily for three decades, suddenly stopped increasing in the mid-1990s. Among blacks, the rate, which had reached 70.4 percent, actually began to decline.

This is a humanitarian triumph that must honestly be laid at the feet of conservatives and Republicans, who pushed so hard to achieve it and endured abuse on the subject for years.