Welfare Reform – 10 Years Later

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.

Update: Robert Samuelson has more and Cato has
more.

35 Responses to “Welfare Reform – 10 Years Later”


  • One of the worse days of my depression-era childhood, and there were many bad days, was when someone knocked at the front door. Two men had come from a local charity with a turkey for the poor family of which I was a member. I was fifteen and the oldest of eight brothers and sisters, children of hard-working Mexican immigrants. My face flushed with the shame I felt at being considered by strangers as an object of their charity and I never forgot that feeling. With the ethic of hard work my parents imparted to me I studied hard at school and in time qualified for admission to a great university from which I earned my degree and two advanced degrees. This was before the Democratic party decided that as a “person of color,” (a phrase I consider demeaning) I qualified for the charity they called affirmative action. I spent years in the Democrat party but finally realized that it did not represent either what I believed or the way I had lived.

  • You make me proud mhr! I mean that with all sincerity. Please stick around and comment as often as you like.

  • That was good mhr. Thanks. 🙂

  • Yes and in this area it has come home to roost.
    I am all for welfare reform if you create an inviroment that reduces the need for welfare.
    After 911 many people at the DFW airport got laid off and the welfare roles grew in the DFW area, being that welfare is harder to get now the homless ranks grew aswell. Many of these people were earning good money and have not yet been able to find jobs equal in pay, and that is not right (just right wing)

  • Jobs come and go.

    Henry Ford forced many out of their old jobs: Buggy-whip makers, streetsweepers, blacksmiths, stablekeepers to name a few. Those jobs went away and never returned.

    But I suspect most of the displaced went on to better things!

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