August 21, 2006


10 years after, welfare reformers look to build on gains (Cheryl Wetzstein, 8/21/06, THE WASHINGTON TIMES)

Looking back, America's disenchantment with the 1960s "War on Poverty" programs reached its zenith in the 1990s. Despite the programs' good intentions, grinding poverty, unemployment and low wages -- especially among minority males -- as well as crime, substance abuse and unwed childbearing grew unabated.

The average stay on welfare was eight years, with many mothers relying on welfare checks for 13 years, studies found. Tales of fraud, abuse and indolent, baby-making "welfare queens" abounded, as did complaints about the skyrocketing costs of welfare.

Welfare reform was a perennial legislative issue during the 1980s and 1990s, but no matter what Congress did, caseloads grew, peaking at 14.2 million people in 1994. A watershed moment came when Mr. Clinton offered his 1992 campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it." Momentum was also building in the states, where dozens of governors, led by Wisconsin's Gov. Tommy Thompson, were using federal waivers to revamp their welfare programs.

Mr. Clinton's initial welfare reform -- which would have cost an extra $9 billion -- fell to the wayside. House Republicans seized the moment and included welfare reform in their Contract With America, the banner under which the party swept into power in 1994.

The resulting 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act passed with strong bipartisan support and was signed by Mr. Clinton on Aug. 22, after having vetoed two earlier versions.

Under the 1996 law, states received fixed (rather than unlimited) federal funds in exchange for flexibility in designing their own welfare programs within federal guidelines. There was a new five-year limit on federal welfare checks and a mandate for states to assist welfare recipients to prepare for, find and keep jobs -- or lose their benefits. "Work first" was the new mantra.

The welfare caseload plummeted by more than 60 percent or nearly 10 million people. As of December 2005, which ended the first quarter of fiscal 2006, the caseload stood at 4.3 million recipients and 1.8 million families, according to HHS.

Republicans and their allies are proud of the 1996 reform, which has also resulted in a lower rate of child poverty and higher rate of employment among single mothers. The welfare-reform debate showed "how 'we the people' can bring about profound change that dramatically improves the lives of millions of our fellow citizens," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told the recent Ways and Means hearing.

Before 1996, unwed childbearing rates were growing at a rate that would have taken them to 42 percent of all live births by 2003, Heritage Foundation welfare analyst Robert Rector said in his House hearing testimony. However, the welfare debate, with its focus on personal responsibility, work and time-limited welfare, helped slow the growth of the illegitimacy rate, he said. Today, just under 35 percent of births are out of wedlock, a relatively modest increase compared with the 32 percent figure in 1996.

Brookings Institution scholar Ron Haskins, a former Republican House staff member who has written a new book about his front-row seat at the welfare debates, noted that the 1996 reform also strengthened child-support enforcement, expanded funding for abstinence education, made it easier for faith-based groups to provide welfare services and ended welfare checks to newly arrived immigrants as well as to prisoners and substance abusers.

"Taken together, these reforms constitute the most fundamental change in American social policy since the Social Security Act of 1935," Mr. Haskins wrote in "Work Over Welfare: The Inside Story of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law."

A hundred years from now -- when the paragraph on the 1990's in the history books includes only the Peace Dividend, Welfare Reform, Free Trade, and Monica-- Bill Clinton will be seen as a Grover Cleveland doppleganger.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 21, 2006 10:10 AM

If that turns out to be true, will Mr. Bush be remembered as a transformational figure? Or will his successor get all the credit for finishing what he started?

Posted by: mc at August 21, 2006 10:29 AM

Stuff and nonsense. Let's hope by then historians will have cleansed their midst of partisan hacks.

Somewhere along the line, Bush said, a lot can be accomplished if you don't care who gets the credit.

Posted by: erp at August 21, 2006 11:12 AM

The pardons will haunt him, especially as they get new light from Hillary's move towards running.

And he risks being lumped with Jimmy Carter if he keeps saying foolish things about US foreign policy.

Posted by: jim hamlen at August 21, 2006 11:17 AM

I had to look up "Doppleganger". I had never heard the term before, but saw it on a Yu-gi-oh card (my niece's cards, not mine) recently.

Posted by: Dave W at August 21, 2006 11:24 AM

Clinton, Gingrich, Bush, Blair, etc. all followed the lead of NZ, Pinochet and Thatcher.

Posted by: oj at August 21, 2006 11:27 AM

What pardons?

Posted by: oj at August 21, 2006 11:27 AM

BJ's great contribution to American history was the "Assault" "Weapons" "Ban," whereby we were mobilized to take our country back.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 21, 2006 12:32 PM

The pardons the entire adminstration, from Cheney and Rumsfeld on down, will get on 19 Jan 2009 for all the criminal activity they committed in the name of "national security". (Wow, this paranoid, netroots type thinking can be fun!)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at August 21, 2006 12:32 PM

Oh, you meant Clinton's past pardons, the ones that went down the Memory Hole by the end of that month. I thought you meant the ones Bush will issue if he doesn't get impeached and removed first...

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at August 21, 2006 12:37 PM

Only the Cold War delayed the swing back to the Right.

Posted by: oj at August 21, 2006 12:43 PM

Who was Grover Cleveland?

Posted by: jim hamlen at August 21, 2006 3:44 PM

Who was Grover Cleveland?

Posted by: jim hamlen at August 21, 2006 3:46 PM

Recall that the reason he's unknown is because, though the only Democrat in a long line of Republican presidencies, his was indistinguishable from theirs.

Posted by: oj at August 21, 2006 3:57 PM

The pitcher who conquered the world.

Posted by: jdkelly at August 21, 2006 5:00 PM

My high school was named after him.

Posted by: erp at August 21, 2006 7:14 PM

Grover Cleveland Alexander?

Posted by: jdkelly at August 21, 2006 8:01 PM

The president, not the pitcher. I went to high school before Grover Cleveland Alexander was born.

Posted by: erp at August 22, 2006 8:23 AM

Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander (February 26, 1887, Elba, Nebraska - November 4, 1950, St. Paul, Nebraska)
Not many around who graduated before 1887. Congratulations.

Posted by: Vic Havens at August 22, 2006 11:19 AM

Of course, he did later become president.

Posted by: oj at August 22, 2006 11:49 AM