Interview: Welfare reform, 10 years later

August 24, 2006

WASHINGTON – In his new book, “Work Over Welfare: The Inside Story of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law”, Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and co-director of Brookings’ Center on Children and Families, provides first-hand insight into the history of and political machinations behind the 1996 Welfare Reform Law. Haskins was a key staffer on the House Ways and Means Committee at the time of the bill’s passage and played a large role its creation. The Examiner interviewed Haskins to get his assessment of the bill on its 10-year anniversary.

Q: What about the political landscape in 1996—and the realities of the welfare state—pushed welfare reform to the top of the agenda in 1996 and made its passage possible?

A: Then-governor Bill Clinton surprised Republicans by making welfare reform a major issue in his 1992 campaign. His skillful use of welfare reform was a key ingredient in his victory, especially in battleground states like Ohio. But when President Clinton failed to push welfare reform, Republicans in the House formed working groups to draft legislation that they believed would revolutionize several of the nation’s major welfare programs and save money for taxpayers. With Congressional Republicans united behind a revolutionary welfare reform bill, and with Clinton and the Democratic Party badly divided on welfare reform, the shocking elections of 1994 gave Republicans control of both the House and the Senate. Another factor pushing welfare reform to the top of the agenda was public support. Polls showed that the public favored work over welfare by huge margins. Another important factor was strong evidence that the old system, which gave people cash without expecting anything in return, contributed to making people dependent on welfare and to having babies outside marriage. When the moment of truth arrived in 1996, the old welfare system had no serious defenders.

Q: Who were the main players pushing welfare reform and whose ideas and agenda played the biggest role in its drafting?

A: The most fundamental reform idea was that mothers on welfare, even those with young children, should be encouraged, cajoled, and, when necessary, forced to work. President Clinton was the first prominent Democrat to accept the work agenda and, from the beginning of his presidency, he supported tough welfare reform provisions. Republicans developed the specific legislative provisions and the concepts underlying these policies, while Clinton and many Democrats supported the general principle that welfare recipients had to find jobs. It is also noteworthy, though often overlooked, that Republicans developed a host of sweeping reforms of other programs that were included in the final legislation. Thus, cash benefits and health coverage for drug addicts and alcoholics were terminated, most welfare benefits for noncitizens were terminated, the program of cash benefits for disabled children was deeply reformed, child care was reformed and expanded, the food stamp program was trimmed and the child support enforcement program was greatly strengthened. With the exception of the child support enforcement reforms, which were bipartisan from the beginning, all of these reforms were resisted by Democrats at the beginning of the debate, although in the end half the Democrats in Congress voted to support them.

Q: How bad was the state of the welfare system in 1996?

A: There was all but universal agreement in 1996 that the nation’s cash welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, was broken. It contributed to families becoming dependent on welfare and it provided cash to young people, including adolescents, who had babies outside marriage.

Q: Why did President Clinton veto two versions of the welfare reform bill, and what ultimately made him acquiesce?

A: Many Democrats were horrified by the Republican welfare reform bill because, among other reasons, they believed it put young mothers and their children at risk and because it reduced or eliminated welfare benefits for noncitizens. Thus, Clinton vetoed two early versions of the bill both because he thought the bills were too harsh and because he was trying to force Republicans to change the bill so that more Democrats would support it. Republicans made a few changes in the bill, including adding more money for child care, expanding Medicaid coverage for children, and reducing some of the cuts in social programs, and passed the bill a third time in July of 1996. On this occasion, half the Democrats in Congress voted in favor of the bill and Clinton signed it. Some critics charged Clinton with abandoning his party or trying to strengthen his political position in a cynical bid to be re-elected (he signed the bill less than three months before the presidential election of 1996). But I think he signed the bill because he believed the welfare system was flawed, he believed in tough work requirements, and he also supported several other reforms in the bill, especially the child support enforcement reforms. Republicans were able to change the bill enough, while preserving all its basic features, to convince Clinton to defy the left wing of his party and join Republicans in creating a new era in welfare policy.

Q: Ten years after its passage, what have been the bill’s greatest accomplishments? What changes have we seen both in the welfare system and in the lives most affected by it?

A: Most states have radically changed their welfare programs to emphasize work. Before welfare reform, the main goal of state welfare programs was simply to give out money. But now the message families receive when they apply for welfare is that they need a job, that the “welfare” program is there to help them find one and that they can receive cash benefits for a maximum of five years. As a result, welfare rolls plunged by over 60 percent, as many as two million mothers entered the labor force, earnings for females heading families increased while their income from welfare payments fell, and child poverty declined every year between 1993 and 2000. By the late 1990s, both black child poverty and poverty among children in female-headed families had reached their lowest levels ever. Even now, after four years of increased child poverty following the 2001 recession, the child poverty rate is still 20 percent lower than it was in 1993. In addition to welfare reform, these families were helped by a series of federal and state programs that provided support to poor and low income working families. The success of welfare reform was created both by welfare reforms itself and by the work support programs that provided tax credits, health insurance, nutrition supplements and child care to low-income working families.

Q: What is the biggest shortcoming of the bill, looking back? And could that failure have been anticipated in 1996?

A: Arguably the biggest problem associated with the 1996 reforms is that some mothers have been unable to find or keep jobs. Under the old system, mothers could stay on welfare for many years; under the new system, they must work or lose their benefits. The issues that interfere with these mothers’ ability to find and retain employment include mild disabilities, addictions, mental health issues, domestic violence and problems with child care. This problem does not call for modifying the welfare reform law. Rather, it calls for intense programs to help these mothers and for state action to allow some mothers to continue receiving welfare benefits as long as they are making efforts to prepare for work.

Q: What is the current state of the welfare system? Are more changes needed? If so, what?

A: Promoting work and self-sufficiency are major goals of the nation’s cash welfare program, now called the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. But many of the nation’s other welfare programs, especially housing programs and food stamps, do not have strong work requirements. All welfare programs, with the possible exception of health programs, should require able-bodied recipients to work or prepare for work.

Q: Is there still political will to tweak and improve the welfare system?

A: Polls show that the public does not think welfare is a very important issue and, except for the debate when the welfare reform legislation had to be reauthorized, Congress has not had a spirited welfare debate about new welfare proposals in a decade. Thus, there appears to be little political will to improve the welfare system and to attack the problems that remain. These include improving school readiness for young children, reducing the frequency of births outside marriage, increasing marriage rates, helping young males avoid prison and attain the education and work experience that would lead to employment and then to better jobs, and increasing public support for poor and low-income working families so they can improve the standard of living for themselves and their children.

Excerpt from Work Over Welfare

Promoting child well-being was a major goal of all participants in the 1995-96 welfare reform debate. Republicans argued that increased work by mothers on welfare would lead to positive impacts on children because mothers would be setting an example of personal responsibility, would impose schedules and order on chaotic households, and would increase family income. By contrast, Democrats thought that welfare reform would be disastrous for children. Many Democrats believed that mothers would not be able to find and maintain work, would hit time limits or be hit by sanctions and would experience serious declines in family income, driving them into destitution. Perhaps the most frequent charge, based on a reputable study by the Urban Institute, was that welfare reform would throw a million children into poverty. There were also predictions that more children would be removed from their parents and placed in the child protection system.

Several types of research evidence are now available to make informed judgments about what predictions have come true. A reasonable place to begin is with broad survey data on the well-being of American children. As we have seen, poverty not only did not increase but actually declined every year between 1994 and 2000, with black child poverty reaching its lowest level ever. Although poverty increased after 2000, it remained well below its 1994 level. So great was the decline in poverty that, as Paul Jargowsky and Isabel Sawhill show, the number of neighborhoods with concentrated poverty fell precipitously, as did the number of neighborhoods classified as underclass because of the concentration of poverty and the high frequency of problems such as school dropout, female-headed families, welfare dependency, and labor force dropout by adult males. The authors conclude that the 1990s were a “remarkable decade in which substantial progress was made.”