The Welfare Reform Miracle

Posted: Aug 20, 2006 10:34 PM

What is the American Public Human Services Association? It is the association of state, federal and local welfare directors formerly known as the American Public Welfare Association, from the days back before "welfare" had a bad name.

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the most extraordinary cultural and policy shift in recent American life — the revolution wrought by President Clinton's signing of a welfare-reform bill in August 1996. Pro-work reforms of welfare had been bubbling up from the states since the early 1990s, but the federal legislation completed a change in philosophy that rippled into the lives of single mothers, changing them dramatically for the better.

If the kind of social progress brought by welfare reform had been caused by a liberal policy, its architects would be enjoying Kennedy School sinecures and lionizing portrayals in a major motion picture. But the rebels who changed the welfare status quo were conservative intellectuals and officeholders. The only tribute to them is the facts, recounted in congressional testimony by the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector, the intellectual godfather of reform, and in a new book, "Work Over Welfare," by Ron Haskins, a former staffer on a key congressional committee.

Welfare caseloads have dropped 60 percent since the passage of welfare reform. Was that just the result of a strong economy? No. Caseloads didn't decline significantly in any of the eight periods of economic expansion from the 1950s to the mid-1990s. From 1953 to 1994, the number of families on welfare dropped in only five years, and two years in a row only once. By 2005, welfare caseloads had been declining for a stunning 11 straight years.

Work requirements, and the message sent by reform that dependence is unacceptable, got former recipients into the work force. "From 1993 to 2000 the portion of single mothers who were employed grew from 58 percent to nearly 75 percent," Haskins writes. Among never-married mothers, the most disadvantaged group, employment grew by 50 percent. "Employment changes of this magnitude over such a short period for an entire demographic group are unprecedented in Census Bureau records," he adds.

If a mother is on welfare, it basically guarantees that she will be poor. If she has a job, she will probably have more income, and her children will be better off. So, child poverty dropped every year between 1994 and 2000. In 1995, the black child poverty rate was a little higher (41.5 percent) than it had been in 1971 (40.4 percent). Welfare reform sent it plummeting to 30 percent by 2001, when "the poverty rate for black children was at the lowest point in national history," Rector writes.

Welfare reform also had a small positive effect on the illegitimacy rate. In the debate over reform, politicians spoke out against out-of-wedlock childbearing, and the reforms themselves marginally decreased the disincentives for mothers to marry. The out-of-wedlock birthrate had skyrocketed from roughly 8 percent in 1965 to more than 32 percent in 1995. This rate of increase slowed, and among blacks the rate declined very slightly, from 69.9 percent in 1995 to 68.2 percent in 2003.

Welfare reform, then, has affected the lives of millions of people. If the 1999 poverty rate had still been at 1990 levels, there would have been another 4.2 million poor mothers and children. If the illegitimacy rate had continued at its pre-reform pace, another 1.4 million children would have been born out of wedlock. Some of the gains of welfare reform were lost in the 2001 recession, but reform has created a fundamentally different and better dynamic in the nation's anti-poverty policy.

More worrisome is that the success of the 1996 law has relieved pressure on policymakers to keep states from backsliding on enforcing work requirements. And the ultimate reform in poverty policy won't come until government encourages marriage among the women who now become single mothers. If that seems a hopelessly ambitious cause, a little more than a decade ago people said the same about reforming welfare.