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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Workfare is better than welfare

    This week marks the 10-year anniversary of the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act – the most significant overhaul of the welfare system since the New Deal. That measure fundamentally altered America’s welfare policy, changing the welfare system from one in which the government promised federal cash to the jobless poor to one that makes financial assistance contingent upon serious attempts to find work. In short, the 1996 reforms ended government cash handouts and encouraged employment, prodding poor Americans to rely on personal effort rather than government largesse for their economic subsistence.

    It is difficult to overstate the venom hurled at the Republican welfare reform bill by many prominent Democratic leaders and much of America’s left. Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan infamously predicted that thousands of poor children would wind up “”sleeping on crates”” if the GOP measure passed. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert claimed that the bill waged “”jihad”” against the poor, and “”deliberately inflict(ed) harm”” on children. The Urban Institute, one of the most prominent liberal think-tanks, calculated that the welfare changes would push some 1.1 million more children into poverty.

    Although he vetoed two previous versions of welfare reform, to his credit, President Clinton eventually faced down his most vocal left-wing opponents, and signed the measure into law. In so doing, Clinton fulfilled a campaign promise to “”end welfare as we know it.”” Three administration officials resigned in protest.

    The major reform to spark the onslaught of liberal criticism was an end to 60 years of cash entitlements to the poor. Prior to the 1996 reforms, there were no work limits or requirements for receiving federal aid. There were also no time limits on receiving benefits. Effectively, all an individual with dependents had to do was remain below the poverty line and he could receive checks from the government for the rest of his life. In fact, the incentive to work was outweighed by the prospect of losing other welfare benefits guaranteed under the old law, as well as by the possibility that the recipient’s new employment check might be smaller than her old welfare check after taxes.

    The Republican reforms ended the cash entitlements, imposed a five-year limit on receiving federal aid, required recipients to prepare and search for work or risk losing their benefits and mandated that state governments place half of their welfare caseloads into programs that led to employment.

    As it turns out, a few incentives and a little hard work was precisely what the doctor ordered. In 1994, welfare caseloads peaked at 5.1 million families. Since the overhaul of the system, caseloads nationwide have declined by 58 percent, or just under 3 million, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. In some states, such as Wyoming and Virginia, welfare caseloads have been virtually wiped out, declining 93.2 percent and 84.5 percent respectively. Arizona has seen some of the most modest declines – still dropping 32.8 percent off its welfare rolls. These figures mark the first sustained decline in welfare caseloads since the original bill was enacted in 1935. So much for the Urban Institute’s predictions.

    Those who are left on welfare are not the victims of jihad, as Herbert suggested. Instead, many are working – and in many cases prospering – and finding new lives for themselves. Employment by single mothers (a group that represents 3 out of 4 families on welfare), for instance, rose 25 percent from 1994 to 2000, before declining slightly since recession hit in 2001. Earnings for the poorest 40 percent of families headed by single mothers doubled in that same period.

    And contrary to what Sen. Moynihan prophesied, children did not end up sleeping on crates. Poverty rates for children have fallen by nearly 20 percent, and black child poverty rates have reached some of their lowest levels ever in the years since welfare reform was enacted.

    All of this indicates that welfare reform has worked. None of the left’s most dire predictions have come to pass, and the vast preponderance of evidence has proven the liberal naysayers astonishingly wrong.

    Ten years later, Republicans should champion the successes of welfare reform as a triumph for conservative principles. And they should not be shy in fighting hard to extend those principles to other programs, such as school vouchers, job training and social security.

    Modern-day welfare is not without its problems, and more can be done to ensure that individuals stay off the welfare rolls. But, principles of personal responsibility and limited government, combined with the proper incentive, worked to make a bad national policy better. Republican leaders should remember those principles as they seek to keep their jobs in November, as should those of you who head to the polls.

    Jon Riches is a third-year law student.
    He can be reached at

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