Ending welfare as we know it

March 09, 1994|By Edwin J. Feulner Jr.

THE recent announcement by the White House that it is scaling back its welfare-reform plans should come as no surprise.

If the president were really serious about "ending welfare as we know it," his administration wouldn't be spending more money than ever on the same conventional welfare programs that already have cost U.S. taxpayers more than $5 trillion since President Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1965. That's $5 trillion: more than the entire cost of battling Germany and Japan in World War II, or $50,000 for every family in America.

The administration's first budget proposal contained a massive $110 billion spending increase for the next five years on such traditional welfare programs as food stamps, public housing and energy assistance. It sought no funding whatsoever for the "workfare" Mr. Clinton likes to talk about -- a requirement that welfare recipients perform community service in exchange for their benefits. His latest budget, for fiscal 1995, likewise contains no new workfare funding -- and another $25 billion over five years for more "welfare as we know it."

In fact, the Clinton administration spent most of 1993 trying to do away with the only current workfare requirement on the books -- part of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children-Unemployed Parent (AFDC-UP) program, which applies to fathers in only 3.6 percent of all welfare families. When asked why it wanted to eliminate the work requirement, the administration said it was because no funds were available for workfare. Of course, the reason there were no funds is because the administration didn't ask for any.

These signals indicate that "ending welfare as we know it" may be just another of Bill Clinton's rhetorical ruses. America has been down the road of bogus welfare reform before. Just six years ago we were told the welfare system had been overhauled by the Family Support Act of 1988. The politicians made lots of promises: The bill would require a majority of welfare recipients to work for their benefits; it would cause welfare spending to plummet as deadbeat dads were forced to pay what they owe.

Yet, by 1992 total annual welfare spending at all levels of government had soared to $305 billion from $217 billion in 1988. Did workfare get off the ground? Nope. The Family Support Act required just 1 percent of the parents enrolled in AFDC, the largest welfare program, to participate in workfare.

Yet, President Clinton proposed the 1988 welfare "reforms" as the foundation of his new plan. "This spring I will send you a comprehensive welfare reform bill that builds on the Family Support Act of 1988," he said in his State of the Union address. Little wonder that "budget constraints" are now causing the White House to abandon much of its announced welfare-reform plans.

As a former governor, Mr. Clinton should look at what's happening in the states. In Michigan, Gov. John Engler in 1991 did away entirely with general welfare for single, able-bodied, non-elderly adults with no children. Liberals shrieked that many of the more than 100,000 individuals on Michigan's welfare rolls (82 percent of whom had never held a job in their lives) would wind up homeless, or even dead. But two years later more than a third of all terminated welfare recipients had found work during the previous year, and private organizations moved quickly to help the neediest of those unable to find work.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Tommy Thompson has successfully pushed proposals to completely eliminate welfare after two years and to require absent fathers who don't pay child support to perform community service work.

Perhaps the most important reform is being tried in New Jersey. When a welfare mother has another child, New Jersey no longer will give her additional benefits -- a strong incentive to stop having illegitimate children.

These are examples of real welfare reform. If President Clinton wants to go beyond the rhetoric and earn the title of "New Democrat," he'll have to propose reforms at least as far reaching as those underway in the states.

But judging from the record so far, this doesn't appear to be what the president has in mind.

Edwin J. Feulner Jr. is president of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

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