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New York Post

 

Welfare Wonder

December 10, 2006

By E. J. McMahon

WORK OVER WELFARE: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE 1996 WELFARE REFORM LAW
BY RON HASKINS

BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS, 450 PAGES, $32.95

How Reform Worked

BY the time they lost the House and Senate last month, it had been years since congressional Republicans collectively exhibited the kind of energy, discipline and commitment to principle that produced their most enduring achievement - the welfare-reform law of 1996.

Like the Democrats of 2006, the Republicans of 1994 were able to capitalize on a voter backlash against an unpopular president. But Newt Gingrich & Co. ran on a far more sweeping and detailed platform - the Contract with America. On the GOP's 10-point legislative agenda, No. 3 was a bill promising to overhaul welfare programs to discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy, cut spending and impose work requirements for welfare recipients.

Ron Haskins, the House GOP staffer in charge of drafting the welfare-reform bill, has written an engrossing book about how this ambitious campaign proposal led to the most important domestic-policy change of our generation.

Haskins notes that by the late 1980s, a growing body of evidence confirmed that Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and other federal cash-assistance programs were worsening the plight of the poor by promoting dependency and discouraging formation of stable families. The political winds shifted decisively with the 1992 election of Bill Clinton, whose image as a New Democrat rested largely on his promise to "end welfare as we know it."

House Republicans exploited this opening in a manner that was at once intellectually serious and politically shrewd. During Clinton's first two years in office, they stepped up work on a reform bill designed to win unanimous GOP support while attracting enough Democratic votes to put the president on the spot. When Republicans won control of Congress, they knew they had to deliver.

The original Contract welfare bill was introduced and passed soon after the GOP took the House. Clinton twice vetoed versions with provisions designed to discourage out-of-wedlock births. But the crucial work requirement survived, along with a five-year lifetime limit on eligibility for federal assistance (renamed Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF).

"Work first" worked. In the 10 years since Clinton signed what was formally known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, welfare rolls across the country have shrunk by more than 60 percent. Work participation by never-married single mothers has increased. And - contradicting the dire predictions of critics like the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan - the percentage of children living in poverty has decreased.

This is both a terrific political-science text on how Congress functions (when it functions, that is) and an engrossing tale of a tense and dramatic political struggle. Washington-based politicians, bureaucrats, policy wonks and journalists dominate the cast of characters, but Haskins also highlights the indispensable contributions of such outside-the-beltway reformers as Eloise Anderson, California's innovative welfare director, and Govs. John Engler of Michigan and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin.

Haskins shows how smart, classy Republicans like Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. of Florida (who lost his re-election bid last month) worked tirelessly to attract Democratic votes for a truly radical overhaul of the welfare system. In the end, welfare reform passed the House in 1996 by a bigger bipartisan vote margin than those backing the original Medicaid and Medicare statutes 31 years earlier.

If Washington's re-emergent Democrats can accomplish anything nearly as important and beneficial, they'll earn a long-term lease on the "permanent" majority Republicans squandered.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/12102006/postopinion/postopbooks/welfare_wonder_postopbooks_e_j__mcmahon.htm

 

 
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