Heeding Clinton’s Welfare Advice

Margy Waller
Margy Waller Visiting Fellow, Economic Studies and Metropolitan Policy, The Brookings Institution

February 6, 2004

PRESIDENT Clinton shared a few ideas about how to next proceed on welfare reform just before he left office in 2001.

His thoughts are worth reviewing as the Senate prepares to take up the reauthorization of the historic 1996 welfare law.

Noting that it had then been five years since the bill had passed, he said, “We need to look and see where it’s working and what the problems are.”

He identified five issues for policy-makers: Helping the “hard to place” to find work, job-training, transportation, addressing the needs of places with a disproportionate concentration of recipients and reducing recidivism.

Then he went on, saying “one of the great stories of the last eight years is that all of us who thought poor people would rather work than draw a government check for not working were right.” But he worried that “people still have to be able, even on modest wages, to succeed at work and at home,” citing the need to raise minimum wage and his disappointment that this hadn’t happened since 1996.

Finally, he said something few politicians have been willing to say in the context of welfare policy: “we’ve got to make sure that people who are working, particularly if they’re single parents, can do a good job with their kids, because raising children is still the most important job of any society.”

Although we’ve learned some things about his issues in the three years since he raised them, the legislation pending in Congress falls far short of addressing them.

For example, the most promising option for welfare recipients who have not been able to find a job is transitional work. Transitional jobs are wage-paying community-service placements.

Although the federal funding that community-based providers used to offer this option has expired, Congress so far has failed to include even a small amount of continuation funding for them in the pending proposals.

Sadly, federal policy-makers propose to limit, rather than encourage, training and education options that promote advancement and placement in better-paying jobs for welfare recipients.

And while there is near universal agreement that transportation barriers are a major problem for welfare recipients and other low-income workers, there is shocking lack of attention to the issue. Although some senators have agreed to authorize funding for a promising car ownership aid program, the initiative does not include an appropriation of funding, and has not yet received any encouragement from the Bush administration.

It turns out that long-term welfare cases are located disproportionately in urban areas. Local leaders argue that there is a great need for more flexibility to deal with these recipients who have numerous barriers to work, and note that the pending proposals move in the opposite direction by creating new unfunded mandates.

Many of the long-term recipients are working already; they just are not earning enough to leave the rolls. These parents – as well as those who return to the rolls quickly – need services like training, transportation and child care. But proposed changes to the law would make it harder to fund such things.

And, unfortunately, the minimum wage is still at the 1996 level of $5.15 an hour.

Finally, when President Clinton signed the welfare bill, he said that cuts in supports for legal immigrants had nothing to do with the goals of welfare reform, and he worked to reverse those parts of the law. But proposed reinstatements for immigrants that a majority of senators support are not yet included in this year’s legislation.

When they take up reauthorization, senators have a long way to go before they can claim to be the good stewards encouraged by Clinton, who, as he signed the bill, said: “This is not the end of welfare reform; this is the beginning.

“And we have to all assume responsibility. Now that we are saying with this bill we expect work, we have to make sure the people have a chance to go to work.”

Five years later, Clinton bravely identified what he thought might be repairable flaws in one of his legacy achievements. Three years later, we’re still waiting for the leaders who followed him to act as responsibly.