Welfare reform is a partial success story

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Years ago I had a good friend who was a single mother who had received Aid to Dependent Children from the local welfare department.  She attended the same high school I did in the late 1950s and early 1960s, some years after I left to go to college and do my military service.  She became pregnant in her early teens, married the father and dropped out of high school.   She and her young husband were too immature for marriage, and they soon divorced.  In those days, this course of events wasn’t uncommon. She found herself on her own with children to support, and applied for welfare assistance.

When I met her she had a job and no longer was receiving assistance.  She said that going to the welfare department and having her name taken off the public assistance rolls was the hardest thing she ever did in her life.  She told me that she was terrified to do this, because she was putting not only herself but her children at risk.  So long as she was a welfare client, she could be assured that her children would receive food and medical care.  Off welfare, her children’s food and doctor bills were her responsibility.  Things worked out.  Both she and her ex-husband got married again, to different people, and so far as I know did okay thereafter.

Nowadays things might not be so rough for someone in her situation.  Medicaid provides a minimum level of medical insurance for working poor people.  The Affordable Care Act will provide universal health insurance, supposedly at an affordable rate.  The expansion of the food stamp program since that era means that in principle no family need go without enough to eat.

The most significant change was the Clinton administration’s 1996 welfare reform.  Requirements for being on welfare were tightened up, while the Earned Income Tax Credit, a reverse income tax, provides supplemental income so that poor people on welfare are not penalized for getting jobs.

The charts above indicate that the Clinton-era welfare reform worked in terms of moving single-parent families from welfare to work.  It did not work so well in terms of reducing the number of children in poverty, which to my mind is the more important thing.  It is the experience of growing up in poverty, as much asnot just the experience of having a single-parent, that makes an adult likely to be poor themselves.   I don’t think the solution to this is to be found within the welfare system.  What we need is to get back to a full-employment, high-wage economy in which anyone willing to work can earn a decent living.

Double click to enlarge.

Having said this, I acknowledge that there are women in this country who think that it is perfectly normal to make a living by having babies and getting paid by the government to raise them, and that there are men in this country who think it is normal to live off women who are getting paid to raise fatherless children.

I admit I don’t have a good answer.  I don’t believe you can treat children as you would treat unwanted puppies or kittens.  A decent society should not let children go hungry or without needed medical care.

Here is a difference, I think, between liberal and conservative attitudes.  A typical conservative wants to make sure that no help goes to anyone who doesn’t deserve it, even if some deserving people are cut off.  A typical liberal such as myself wants to be sure that everybody who really needs help should get it, even if some undeserving people also are helped.  I agree that a balance is needed, and either attitude can be taken to a harmful extreme.

Click on What Works Is Work: Welfare Reform and Poverty Reduction for a report by Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution.

Click on Welfare Reform Worked for a shorter report by Haskins along with Peter H. Schuck of Yale Law School.

Click on Indicators of Welfare Dependence for a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services which provides all the statistics on this subject that anybody could ever want.

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