Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.), apparently was in no mood to mince words that day in 1996 when he described the welfare-reform bill that had just been enacted by a Republican Congress and a Democratic president.
Requiring welfare recipients to work and limiting the length of time they could collect benefits added up to “the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction,” he said. “Those involved will take this disgrace to their graves.”
Moynihan was hardly alone. Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, proclaimed the legislation “an outrage … that will hurt and impoverish millions of American children.” Her husband, Peter Edelman, then an assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services, resigned in protest and wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly titled “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done.”
Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, said the law would “place 12.8 million people on welfare at risk of sinking further into poverty and homelessness,” a charge echoed in numerous newspaper editorials.
So as Congress prepares to reauthorize the law, it’s time to ask: How have these predictions fared?
Fortunately, not well at all. Census Bureau data show substantial declines in child poverty in the United States, especially among the two groups most affected by welfare reform: children of single mothers and black children.
The improvement in black child poverty has been dramatic. During the quarter century before welfare reform, black child-poverty rates remained essentially flat. In 1995, the last year before welfare reform, the rate was 41.5 percent. This was slightly higher than the rate was in 1971, when it stood at 40.4 percent
After welfare reform, the black child-poverty rate began dropping at a sharp and unprecedented rate, falling to 30 percent in 2001. Today, despite the sluggish economy, black child poverty is at the lowest level in national history.
The poverty rate for single-mother families shows a similar pattern. For more than two decades before welfare reform, we saw little net change. After reform, poverty fell among these families fell from 50.3 percent in 1995 to 39.8 percent in 2001. Even saddled with a recession, the poverty rate that year for children in single-mother families was at its lowest point in U.S. history.
What about child hunger? The Children’s Defense Fund said welfare reform would “make children hungrier.” Peter Edelman predicted more “malnutrition.” Yet the numbers here have been cut roughly in half, with Agriculture Department data showing that in 1995, the year before welfare reform, 887,000 children were hungry; by 2001, the number had fallen to 467,000. That’s still too many, but it’s a far cry from what critics predicted.
Didn’t any numbers go up? Sure — employment figures. And they went up the most among “disadvantaged” mothers. Employment for never-married mothers has jumped by nearly 50 percent since the mid-1990s. The number of single mothers with jobs but no high-school diploma has risen by two-thirds, while employment among young single mothers (between the ages of 18 and 24) has nearly doubled.
There’s a simple explanation, some critics reply — the economy. Former welfare recipients naturally succeeded while it was improving. But while a strong economy undoubtedly helped, research shows that state welfare reform policies played a much larger role.
Indeed, a recent study, by Rebecca Blank, a former member of the Council of Economic Adviseors in the Clinton administration, shows a direct link between state welfare-reform policies and rising incomes among poor families. Blank found that s tates with welfare-reform programs that offered “strong work incentives” showed greater increases in the income of single parents with children than did states with weak work incentives.
Besides, similar economic expansions before 1996 did nothing to cut welfare rolls, and our current economic woes have slowed but not stopped the progress made by reform.
But that doesn’t mean the current law is beyond improvement. Congress should strengthen federal work requirements; about half of the two million mothers who get a TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) check are idle, despite being able-bodied. Lawmakers also can strengthen marriage among the poor, which a wealth of social-science research proves is the best way to cut poverty among children and boost their well-being.
If lawmakers take this advice, expect to hear more hysterical predictions among the naysayers. And count on them being just as wrong.