What if we knew how to reduce by half the number of Americans dependent on welfare? What if we could — at the same time — significantly reduce poverty among children and single mothers?
If we had such an effective poverty-fighting formula in place, surely we'd try to expand it, not toss it aside. Yet that's what the administration has just done with the successful welfare reform of 1996.
On July 12, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a new policy gutting welfare reform by claiming the authority to waive work requirements — the central element in the law's success.
The move is bad policy, bad governance and bad politics. Most of all, it's bad for those that public assistance is supposed to help.
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Signed by President Bill Clinton, welfare reform transformed the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children into a program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
For four decades prior to reform, welfare rolls saw no significant decline and child poverty remained persistently high. Following the historic reforms of 1996, the welfare caseload fell by half. Nearly 3 million Americans achieved independence from government. Poverty among children and single mothers decreased significantly; poverty among black children reached its lowest level in U.S. history, as did the poverty rate for single mothers.
The main reason for these impressive results was establishing work requirements, which called for able-bodied adults to work or prepare for work.
Congress wrote the law specifically not to allow these tough work requirements to be waived. The fact that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has claimed that power tramples not only on successful policy but also on the authority of Congress. This shows a serious disregard of the separation of powers described in the Constitution.
Waiving work requirements also tramples on popular opinion, which long has favored welfare reform. Today, polls continue to show that more than 80 percent of Americans support work requirements for able-bodied adults receiving public assistance. Americans are generous toward neighbors in genuine need, but they want to know that each one is doing what he can to exercise personal responsibility and improve his situation.
Even Barack Obama, as a candidate for president, acknowledged the success of the policy his administration has just undermined. During the 2008 candidates forum at Saddleback Church hosted by Rick Warren, the U.S. senator from Illinois explained that he initially opposed welfare reform but changed his opinion when “it worked better than, I think, a lot of people anticipated.”
“And, you know,” Obama added, “one of the things that I am absolutely convinced of is that we have to work as a centerpiece of any social policy.”
Since the 1960s government has spent nearly $20 trillion on the War on Poverty. The federal government now runs approximately 80 programs providing aid to the poor. Only three had functioning work requirements, and now that count is down to two. Real reform means not only restoring TANF work requirements but expanding the policy to programs such as food stamps and public housing.
While serving as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the late Jack Kemp criticized the welfare state for exacerbating poverty by weakening the connection between effort and reward. In a 1990 speech at The Heritage Foundation, Kemp explained that the fundamental problem with welfare policy at the time was that it got human nature wrong — especially about the importance of work to human dignity.
“The poor don't want paternalism, they want opportunity,” Kemp said. “They don't want the servitude of welfare, they want to get jobs and private property. They don't want dependency, they want a new declaration of independence.”
Welfare reform succeeded in helping millions of Americans achieve that goal. This is no time for the administration to point the way back to government dependency.
Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.