The 10th anniversary of the landmark welfare reform bill of 1996 is here and it is a good idea to reflect on what exactly resulted and contrast that to what people were predicting would happen. Ron Haskins, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes:
It would be difficult to exaggerate the predictions of doom hurled against the Republican welfare reform bill signed by President Clinton on Aug. 22, 1996. Mr. Clinton had previously vetoed two versions of welfare reform when, with skill, daring and persistence, Republicans in the House and Senate pushed it through Congress a third time and put it again on the president’s desk. In an act of remarkable political courage, Mr. Clinton defied senior members of his own party and most of the American left and signed the radical bill into law.
The left, led by senior Democrats in Congress, the editorial pages of many of the nation’s leading newspapers, the Catholic bishops, child advocates in Washington and the professoriate, had assaulted the bill in terms that are rare, even by today’s coarse standards. Democrats speaking on the floor of the House labeled the bill “harsh,” “cruel” and “mean-spirited.” They claimed that it “attacked,” “punished” and “lashed out at” children. Columnist Bob Herbert said the bill conducted a “jihad” against the poor, made “war on kids” and “deliberately inflict[ed] harm” on children and the poor. Sen. Frank Lautenberg said poor children would be reduced to “begging for money, begging for food, and . . . engaging in prostitution.”
Many Democrats and pundits shouted that the bill would throw a million children into poverty. Marion Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund said that no one who believed in the Judeo-Christian tradition could support the bill. Even God, it seemed, opposed the evil Republican bill….
In the decade that has passed since the 1996 reforms, the welfare rolls have plummeted by nearly 60%, the first sustained decline since the program was enacted in 1935. Equally important, the employment of single mothers heading families reached the highest level ever. As a group, mothers heading families with incomes of less than about $21,000 per year increased their earnings every year between 1994 and 2000 while simultaneously receiving less money from welfare payments. In inflation-adjusted dollars, they were about 25% better off in 2000 than in 1994, despite the fall in their welfare income.
Over the same period, the child-poverty level enjoyed its most sustained decline since the early 1970s; and both black-child poverty and poverty among female-headed families reached their lowest level ever. Even after four years of increases following the recession of 2001, the child poverty level is still 20% lower than it was before the decline began. Similarly, measures of consumption and hunger show that the material conditions of low-income, female-headed families have improved. Although welfare reform was not without problems, none of the disasters predicted by the left materialized. Indeed, national surveys show that almost every measure of child well-being–except obesity–has improved since the mid-1990s.
The 1996 law, in perhaps the most direct legislative clash of liberal and conservative welfare principles since the New Deal, was a victory for conservative principles. Poor mothers scored a victory for themselves and their children, showing that given adequate motivation and support from work-based government programs, they can join the American mainstream, set an example for their children and communities, and pull themselves and their children out of poverty.
The full article can be found here.