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Seattle Post-Intelligencer

 

Welfare reform worth celebrating

July 16, 2006

By Kay S. Hymowitz

Welfare reform celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and celebrates seems the right word. As most know, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families ended the much-despised Depression-era federal entitlement to cash benefits for needy single mothers, replacing it with short-term, work-oriented programs designed and run by individual states. Its success has surprised just about everyone.

So it seems a good time to remember the drama that the bill unleashed in 1996. Cries from Democrats of "anti-family" and "anti-child" echoed through the Capitol, as did warnings of impending Third World-style poverty: "Children begging for money, children begging for food, 8- and 9-year-old prostitutes," as Sen. Frank Lautenberg put it. Sen. Ted Kennedy called it "legislative child abuse," the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "something approaching an Apocalypse." Other Washington bigwigs took up the cry. Marion Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund called the bill "national child abandonment." Immediately after President Clinton signed the bill, some of his top appointees quit in protest.

It's worth recalling the outcry at this anniversary moment. The scare mongering of reform opponents on the one hand, and the relative benignity of the bill's consequences on the other, prompt the obvious question: How is it that so many intelligent, well-intentioned people were so utterly mistaken?

Before examining why, let's consider how they were wrong. The most striking outcome has been the staggering decline in the welfare rolls. At their 1994 peak -- the rolls began to shrink before 1996, because many states had already instituted experimental reforms -- there were 5.1 million families on Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the old program. Almost immediately, the numbers went into freefall, and by 2004 they were down by 60 percent, to fewer than 2 million. A lot of reform opponents tried to chalk this up to the booming late-'90s economy.

But according to former congressional staffer Ron Haskins, author of a forthcoming history of the reform, that doesn't make sense: In the 41 years between 1953 and 1994, he notes, the welfare rolls had declined only five times, and only once (between 1977 and 1979) for two years in a row. Compare that with the present case, when the rolls continued their fall even after a recession began in 2001, and when 2004 marked the 10th continuous year of decline.

Caseload declines are all well and good, but what caused opponents -- and many proponents, too -- to lose sleep was what would happen to women and their children once they left the dole. There were four chief concerns: Would welfare leavers find jobs? Would they sink even deeper into poverty? Would their children be harmed? And would the states take advantage of the wide flexibility the bill gave them on implementation to join what many anticipated would be a "race to the bottom"?

So let's take concern number one: Did women who left the rolls actually go to work? The answer: More than almost anyone had predicted. According to one Urban Institute study, 63 percent of leavers were working in the peak year of 1999. Nevertheless, a lot of skeptics still weren't biting. It was the boom economy, they said; just wait until the job market sours. Well, the recession came in 2001, and though no picnic, it was nothing like what had been feared. As of 2002, 57 percent of welfare leavers continued to punch a time clock.

What about concern number two -- that welfare mothers would sink deeper into poverty? Shortly before TANF passed, the Urban Institute released a report warning that welfare reform could impoverish an additional 2 million people. Reform Jeremiahs waved the report around as proof of their worst fears. Even if some welfare mothers did find jobs, they argued, they would merely be stocking shelves or making hotel beds, the proverbial "dead-end jobs" that would leave them worse off than on the dole.

Though many women did take low-paying service jobs, the unreformed got this one wrong, too. For starters, they failed to consider the Earned Income Tax Credit, whose expansion in 1993 meant a 40 percent boost in annual earnings for a minimum-wage worker with two kids. Most leavers, though, were doing better than minimum wage. In 2002, the same Urban Institute that had predicted TANF disaster found that the median hourly wage for working former recipients was around $8. Moreover, researchers discovered that, as with most people, the longer recipients were in the job market, the more they earned; four years off welfare, only 4 percent of working single mothers were earning minimum wage or less.

As a result, most welfare leavers had more money than when they were on welfare. The poverty rate for single women with children fell from 42 percent in 1996 to 34 percent in 2002; before 1996, it had never in recorded history been below 40 percent. This was the first boom ever where poverty declined faster for that group than for married-couple families. Nor did leavers disdain "dead-end jobs." Studies consistently found that ex-recipients who went on to become waitresses and security guards took pride in being salary women.

Still, it's fair to say that post-reform America was no low-wage worker's paradise, either, especially as the economy weakened in late 2001. Ex-welfare mothers were still poorer than single mothers overall. Some who worked had less income than on welfare. Many were not working full-time, and an estimated 40 percent of those who left the welfare rolls returned later. In 1999, close to 10 percent of leavers were "disconnected" -- neither working nor on welfare nor supported by a working spouse. By the recession year of 2002, that number had risen to almost 14 percent. From the beginning, studies from advocates warned of an increase in the number of families in deep poverty, and rumors swirled that soup kitchens and homeless shelters had crowds of ex-recipients at their doors.

But at least some of these warnings turned out to have been yet more crying wolf. Those who returned to the dole tended soon to find other means of support, getting a new job, signing up for disability or unemployment insurance, or turning to employed partners.

And that takes us to concern number three -- the kids. The image of kids starving in the streets and neglected and abused by desperate mothers was enough to make the most robust reformer queasy. But the predicted Dickensian purgatory also turned out to be wrong. There may have been an increase in the number of children in foster care but child abuse and neglect numbers are, depending on the measures used, either unchanged or down.

More striking was what happened to rates of child poverty. They not only went down; by 2001, they hit all-time lows for black children. And though the numbers drifted up again during the recession, they were still lower than pre-reform. On other measures, the young kids of ex-welfare moms are no worse off than under the old regime. Though some studies find lower achievement and more problem behavior among adolescents, the big picture doesn't show teen children in more trouble post-reform. After 1996, juvenile violence and teen pregnancy continued to go down, as they had since the early '90s.

As for the states' "race to the bottom," that dog didn't bark, either. True, reform enemies might point at the 20-odd states that introduced a "family cap," which sought to stem illegitimacy by denying any increase in benefits to women who had another child while on welfare. But overall, the states were, if anything, nicer than the feds. No state barred cash benefits to teen mothers, though TANF permitted it. Forty-seven states made it easier for leavers to keep some of their cash benefits when they first went to work. Many states, including New York, did away with TANF's five-year time limit for all intents and purposes by using state dollars to pick up the tab for those still on the dole at the time and deemed unable to work.

This, then, is where we find ourselves today, 10 years after reform: a record number of poor single mothers off the dole and the majority of them gainfully employed; less poverty among single mothers, especially black single mothers, and their kids; children adjusting; and state governments taking care of their own.

Progressive pessimists were blind to the promise of reform partly because they believed that the American discomfort with welfare was really a mask for racism. Welfare recipients were, and are, disproportionately black: African Americans totaled about 37 percent of the welfare rolls in 1996, though they were only about 12 percent of the population. If Americans didn't like welfare, pessimists reasoned, it was because they didn't like blacks.

Progressive pessimists were especially gloomy about the American economy. You can't blame them for not foreseeing the economic exuberance of the second half of the '90s; few did. Less defensible was their deep-rooted assumption that poverty was "structural," a permanent part of the American scene. No matter how strong the economy, they asserted, there still wouldn't be enough jobs, employers wouldn't hire welfare mothers, and those who did would offer them only the most demeaning and temporary work.

From this vantage point, any talk about "personal responsibility" was only more evidence of racially tinged victim-blaming. Nothing distinguishes progressive pessimists from their pro-reform counterparts more than their attitudes toward self-sufficiency. For the pessimists, American poverty was so severe, and dead-end jobs so demoralizing, that they almost invariably shattered the individual will. That's why, if manufacturing jobs moved out of the ghetto, the poor could not be expected to move where there were more opportunities -- though throughout the '80s and '90s, millions of poor immigrants were doing just that.

For reformers, though, there was much to learn from "immigrant optimism," as it's sometimes called. People are capable of far more resourcefulness than welfare recipients had been given a chance to show, they contended. This understanding was one reason why Bill Clinton rejected the advice of most of his advisers and signed welfare reform in August 1996. "I've always known poor folks," he told New York Times reporter Jason DeParle. "I've just never thought they were helpless." Human beings tend to do pretty much what they're expected to do. When the culture expects self-sufficiency, people will try to achieve it. When the culture sends mixed messages about self-sufficiency, some will not try to become self-sufficient.

All of this might seem to lead to the conclusion that welfare reform has been a triumph for conservative thinking. That would be overstating things. TANF was never simply about ending welfare dependency. As part of a larger bill called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), it was designed to improve the lives of the formerly dependent more broadly by nudging them toward middle-class life.

The Left always thought of moving up as a matter of money, not behavior: If people earned a middle-class income, they believed, middle-class conduct and aspiration would follow. Conservatives tend to see it the other way around: Middle-class mores are necessary for economic success. If people adopt bourgeois habits, they will work hard, save and plan, and eventually have the money to make a down payment on a house or pay parochial school tuition. In PRWORA's case, supporters took this idea too far. They imagined that jobs would bring discipline to the lives of poor single mothers and transform them and their children. Work would turn them into bourgeois strivers.

You do hear stories that seem to support that theory. But taken as a whole, you'd have to conclude that welfare reform has not been the extreme makeover that supporters had sought. The reason: it has barely touched the single-mother problem. Reform optimists predicted that by heightening women's self-respect and belief in their future, work would make them more marriage-minded. Reformers also hoped that work requirements would act as a deterrent: Girls seeing their mothers and older sisters juggling a low-paying job and children, without a husband's help, would shun such a life.

Perhaps without PRWORA, things would have been worse. After rising steeply for three decades, the increase in the rate of out-of-wedlock births did slow around 1994. Moreover, the marriage rate among blacks was substantially higher in 1998 than the trend line from 1960 to 1990 would have predicted. The number of poor couples cohabiting at the time of their babies' birth also rose.

Still, a slowdown in the spread of illegitimacy and more shacking up among poor men and women -- a notoriously fickle domestic arrangement -- are not quite what optimists had in mind.

Original Source: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/opinion/277499_focus16.html?source=rss

 

 
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