Welfare reform is already happening

March 07, 1997|By Ben Wattenberg

WASHINGTON -- Because of the ''psychological bomb,'' welfare reform has been jump-started. It is working well, and will likely work better. It may end up as a salutary turning point in American social policy. It could even turn the direction of policy in other areas of the world.

I say this after moderating a vigorous ''Think Tank'' program on PBS with a quite remarkable panel, who didn't agree on many things -- in some cases caustically. The four participants have been both scholars and activists in the great welfare wars of the last decade. On the conservative-Republican side were Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation and Andrew Bush of the Hudson Institute. On the liberal-Democratic side were Wendell Primus of the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities and Isabel Sawhill of the Urban Institute.

It is instructive to see what the panelists (and their counterparts in rhetorical politics) agree and disagree about. Thus, there will never be a consensus on who gets credit for welfare reform, assuming it works out well. Bill Clinton ran in 1992, pledging to ''end welfare as we know it.'' The finished 1996 legislation was principally a product of the Gingrich Congress. Republican governors requested, and Mr. Clinton granted, waivers from federal rules for the purpose of trying welfare-reform experiments. Who cares? If it works, pin a rose on them all.

There is little argument about what has happened on the ground. In March of 1994, the welfare caseload was 14.4 million. In December of 1996 it was 11.5 million -- a drop of 20 percent. Moreover, the decrease accelerated: 650,000 recipients left the rolls in the last four months of 1996 after the bill was signed into law.

Why? There is some disagreement. An ongoing healthy economy has surely helped. Liberal opponents say that most of the new law's policies haven't even kicked in yet, and that the changes could have taken place under prior law, and without the potential draconian effects. They are particularly concerned about what might happen when the next recession hits.

Conservatives ecstatically stress the effects of the ''psychological bomb'' that has been detonated in the welfare community, among both recipients and case workers. Liberals may call it ''the announcement effect,'' but don't disagree.

In a sense, liberal crisis-mongering is driving the present success story. Those in and around the welfare system believe the end is nigh. The word is on the street about two-year time limits, five-year time limits, immediate work requirements, and new certification requirements. All this, mixed with denunciations of heartless conservatives who would throw babies into the street, has scared people in poverty communities.

If a recipient who has been working off-the-books is told that an on-the-books job will now be required at the very hours the recipient had been working off-the-books, that recipient may ''vanish.'' Other cases of fraud or near-fraud are also disappearing as the rhetoric and reality of a crackdown continues. Legitimate recipients are making more serious efforts get off the dole.

Track the conservatives

My conclusions, which mostly track the conservative views: The jump-start can be more than transitory. The federal block grants to the states are capped at a constant level, pegged to 1994 caseloads, which had reached an all-time high. As fraudulent, marginal and near-marginal recipients go off the rolls, the states will have more money to spend for the truly needy (including some aged legal immigrants) as well as for non-cash poverty programs for the poor.

Moreover, the states are required to spend that excess money in those ways. Accordingly, the potential dire effects of the law, never as bad as portrayed, may hardly come into play. (Conservatives are concerned that the extra funds may engender new distortions.)

What's happening, at least for now, is what was hoped for. Most Americans always believed that the truly needy were not getting enough help, but that others were ripping off the system, perversely encouraged by the system and harming themselves.

If this ''tough love'' idea works, it will likely serve as a model for other government re-inventions. Welfare is not the only place where we've made mistakes due to runaway social over-engineering.

I was recently in Europe, where the economic and welfare problems make America's look small, with 12 percent unemployment, partly due to a benefit system that discourages work. The Europeans, too, are looking for solutions to problems that arise when governments go from benevolence to counterproductivity. What's happening here could be big-time. Tough love may be lovely stuff.

VTC Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist and the host of the weekly public television program, ''Think Tank.''

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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