An unheralded poverty warrior has passed away. Robert B. Carleson did more to shape welfare policy in this country over the past three decades but news of his death did not draw long, detailed obituaries in most major newspapers. Welfare “rights” organizations will not pay homage to this man whose work helped start many onetime welfare recipients on the path to self-sufficiency. It is not Politically Correct to identify conservatives who advocate work to be compassionate but millions of Americans owe Carleson a debt of gratitude for spearheading consistently the concept of workfare.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated: "Welfare is a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit." Time proved him correct, particularly as welfare programs had more liberal requirements. Generations of families had lost their sense of the work ethic, expecting a government check rather than payment from an employer. The perverse incentives of the welfare system were noted by Don Taylor, then Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, in a November/December 1996 POLICY REVIEW article, “Welfare Reform: Can the States Fly Solo?”
- “The ‘war on children’ began when the federal government rewarded nonwork and nonmarriage. While perhaps well meaning, those who advocate raising family income artificially through welfare have made the state a competitor with the father and mother as the key providers for the family. In Mississippi, the value of welfare benefits to unwed mothers now exceeds the income of 17 to 30 percent of all single men.”
It is a useful time to review the career of Bob Carleson. Recently the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Family Assistance released statistics for FY 2004, assessing the progress made by States as to working welfare recipients. The results should be disheartening for voters in a number of States. The target work rate for “all families” on welfare, established in the reauthorization of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, is 50%. In Pennsylvania, only 7.1% of recipients from “all families’ were working in FY 2004. West Virginia (11.7%) did little better. Arizona (25.5%), Arkansas (27.3%), California (23.1%), Connecticut (24.3%), Delaware (22.1%), the District of Columbia (18.2%), Georgia (24.8%), Maryland (16.0%), Michigan (24.5%), Minnesota (26.8%), Mississippi (21.0%), Missouri (19.5%), North Dakota (25.3%), Rhode Island (23.7%), Utah (26.2%) and Vermont (24.9%) are laggards.
Carleson would not be pleased. He had said long ago: “Anyone who is capable of working should expect to earn [his] own welfare benefit." Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, selected Carleson, the Chief Deputy Director of the California Department of Public Works, to rein in California’s soaring welfare costs. Carleson, leading a task force, devised a plan and negotiated with the leaders of the Democratic California Legislature. The plan actually increased benefits to those recipients, usually disabled, who truly needed help. Incentives to work and a crackdown on fraud were included in the plan.
Carleson served Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford as Commissioner of Welfare, advised Reagan in his 1976 and 1980 Presidential campaigns, directed the transition at HHS after the victory over President Jimmy Carter and became a Special Assistant to the President for Policy Development in the Reagan Administration. He succeeded in helping to assure that the 1981 Budget Reconciliation Act incorporated workfare requirements.
Carleson’s most important contribution to welfare reform came in 1995-1996, when Congress was considering welfare reform. As Senior Fellow at the Free Congress Foundation, Carleson was an adamant advocate of granting the States flexibility to design and manage their own programs. This placed him at odds with other leading conservative advocates for welfare reform, who wanted strings attached.
Carleson countered in an analysis, WELFARE REFORM: SHOULD THERE BE STRINGS ATTACHED?, published by the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA):
- “Block grants without strings would allow each state to redesign its current welfare program completely. Current failed programs need to be thoroughly reformed and replaced. Thirty years of experience has proved that Washington has no workable welfare solution.”
Thanks in large part to Carleson’s persistent prodding, the 1996 welfare reform plan enacted by the Republican-led Congress and signed into law by President William J. Clinton instituted a block grant program, replacing federal matching grants for welfare recipients, a perverse incentive for states to keep their welfare rolls high. Block grants allowed states to keep money even if it lowered welfare rolls. Carleson also pressed for a strong work requirement. Doug Bandow, writing in tribute to the deceased Carleson on Citizen Outreach’s webpage, called the 1996 act Carleson’s “greatest moment.”
That brings us to today. Does the failure of Governors such as Edward Rendell, of Pennsylvania. and Arnold Schwarzenegger, of California, and the State Legislatures to instill tough workfare requirements indicate Carleson failed? Absolutely not. Carleson wrote in the NCPA study:
- “Block grants with minimal restrictions would allow states to allocate available funds to the most urgent and productive uses. Moreover, governors and state legislatures would no longer be able to hide behind federal mandates. If they did not adopt the most effective and least costly reforms discovered by other states, they would be voted out of office.”
HHS Office of Family Assistance statistics demonstrate which States have moved decisively to enforce strict workfare requirements and which have failed. This is an election year. Voters in States with fewer welfare recipients working should be asking tough questions. While Governors and numerous State Legislatures have succeeded in putting welfare recipients to work, other leaders evidently appeared not to care about their responsibility to the taxpayers and to help welfare recipients start climbing the economic ladder.
There could be no greater tribute to the legacy of Robert B. Carleson than further achievement in gaining paying jobs for welfare recipients. Free Congress Foundation was honored that Bob Carleson for many years was an FCF Senior Fellow.