Fared Well


Sometimes the sound of success is silence. It was ten years ago that
President Clinton signed into law a landmark welfare-reform bill,
reinventing the signature New Deal program upon which millions of
poor Americans had come to depend--and provoking a firestorm of
criticism, mostly from his own political party. The new law sought
to make assistance available to only those beneficiaries who
worked--and, even then, for only a limited time. While proponents
predicted reform would break the cycle of poverty, the measure's
opponents called it a "brutal assault on the poor." Key members of
Clinton's Cabinet opposed the measure, and three administration
officials actually resigned over it.No such outcry has greeted the program's ten-year anniversary; if
the press hadn't mentioned it, it's not clear anybody would have
even noticed. The public preoccupation with more urgent matters has
something to do with this lack of attention. But the most important
reason that welfare reform no longer stirs passions is that it just
isn't very controversial anymore. A broad consensus now holds that
welfare reform was certainly not a disaster--and that it may, in
fact, have worked much as its designers had hoped.

In many ways, that consensus is correct. The old welfare program,
known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, reflected the era
in which it was born. Its main purpose was to provide money to
widowed mothers so they could support their families without having
to enter the workforce. But, by the 1980s, unwed mothers had
replaced widows as welfare's archetypal recipients. Many middle-
class families began to resent the idea of paying higher taxes so
the poor could live on the dole. And even some experts on the left
began to concede that welfare was structured in a way that fostered
a permanent underclass dependent on government handouts.

Clinton embraced welfare reform back in his 1992 presidential
campaign, arguing that welfare "should be a second chance, not a
way of life." And, when he put it that way, virtually everyone
agreed. The problem, critics warned, was with execution. It was
fine and good to say welfare recipients had to work. But where
would they find jobs? What about child care? Making matters worse,
the bill Newt Gingrich's Republican Congress produced only faintly
resembled the generous measure that Clinton had talked about.

But, after signing that bill, Clinton made good on his promise to
correct the most egregious flaws of Temporary Assistance for Needy
Families (tanf), as the new program was called. And governors from
across the country surprised skeptics by investing heavily in
programs to ease the transition from welfare to work. Perhaps
because of those efforts--or because the bill's architects were
right about many things--the dire predictions never came true.
Welfare rolls shrank while more single women entered the workforce.
Teen pregnancy fell, too. And, while the statistics on income leave
room for conflicting interpretation, most experts agree that, on
the whole, former welfare recipients are slightly better off than
before, even though the economy has slowed in the Bush era.

Yet doing "better" is not the same thing as doing "well," and many
of those who made the leap from welfare to work are having trouble
climbing the economic ladder. They find themselves struggling to
pay for housing, child care, and medical care. Millions of families
have left the dole only to join the working poor.

But this is a failure of the U.S. economy, not the measure that
became law in 1996. And welfare reform, far from making this
problem more intractable, actually makes it easier to solve. We
know what helps people lift themselves out of poverty--programs
like Section 8 housing vouchers, government-run health insurance,
and the Earned Income Tax Credit. What we have lacked is the
political will to bolster these programs sufficiently. The old
welfare system had a lot to do with this: It cast public doubt on
the Democratic Party and the very notion that government programs
can work. But that has changed. Today, welfare-bashing has lost its
political resonance. And, by blurring the distinctions between the
poor and middle class, welfare reform has expanded the constituency
for activist government. Democrats now have more political room to
fight Republican austerity--and to propose, in its place, a stronger
safety net. The silence that greeted welfare reform's anniversary
was heartening. But now it's time to make some noise.


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