Welfare reform helped, but poverty lingers on

August 15, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Ten years have passed since President Bill Clinton signed a tough welfare-reform law. I feared the worst. It feels good to be wrong. The worst has not happened, but the success is mixed.

Mr. Clinton signed the law, with Republican support, to fulfill a campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it" and to make welfare "a second chance, not a way of life." The law was not as tough as two Republican-based bills that Mr. Clinton vetoed that would have cut Medicaid, child care and other benefits for those moving from welfare to work.

Even the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a longtime critic of the way welfare had bred long-term dependency, feared thousands of poor children would wind up "sleeping on grates."

"In our confusion we are doing mad things," the New York Democrat lamented on the Senate floor. "The premise of this legislation is that the behavior of certain adults can be changed by making the lives of their children as wretched as possible. This is a fearsome assumption."

A study by the Urban Institute, a liberal-leaning, Washington-based think tank, agreed, estimating the welfare-reform bill would plunge 1.5 million adults and 1.1 million children below the poverty line. Three Clinton administration officials quit their jobs in protest.

"So much for welfare as we knew it," I wrote warily at the time, "Now, we wonder, what welfare will we know? Or, more to the point, what kind of poverty will we know?"

Ten years later, I can happily report that few, if any, families have been sleeping on grates. Boosted by a robust economy in the late 1990s, many welfare families, three-fourths of whom are headed by single moms, have entered the world of work with assistance from public-aid offices that learned to function like employment-service agencies.

Earnings for the poorest 40 percent of families headed by women doubled from 1994 to 2000, before a recession wiped out almost half of that gain.

Teen pregnancies have continued a decline, and child-support collections are up.

Child poverty rates have dropped, particularly among blacks and Hispanics. The overall child poverty rate fell to 17.8 percent in 2004 from 20.8 percent in 1995, which means 1.6 million fewer children were living in poverty, according to Robert Rector, a Heritage Foundation senior research fellow who helped draft the welfare-reform legislation. However, liberals are quick to respond that child poverty already had begun to decline a couple of years before the 1996 bill was passed and has been rising since a historic low of 15.9 percent in 2000 when the economic boom cooled.

Unfortunately, a disturbing number of former welfare recipients have merely moved to the ranks of the "working poor," still struggling to make ends meet with a subpoverty income.

Those who have mental illness, substance abuse, criminal records and other such complications in their lives have the least success in gaining or keeping employment.

And more than half of those eligible for welfare payments do not receive them, indicating the new system discourages many deserving people from even submitting an application.

The Bush administration is pushing for tougher requirements with a goal of getting at least half of those on welfare into job training, community service or some other alternative activity. That's only a modest part of what needs to be done. The next round of welfare reform needs to take into account the needs of the new working poor.

Welfare reform should expand into a pro-work, anti-poverty program, which means inclusion of what may be the largest group left behind: young males, particularly young, undereducated black males.

Recent university studies have found that both the economic boom and welfare reform left young black males worse off by every economic measure. Reaching this group will require more than government action. It will require widespread public- and private-sector action at the national and neighborhood level. We've made unexpected progress in the fight against welfare dependency. Now let's fight poverty.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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