Ten Years of Welfare Reform

August 17, 2006

Ron Haskins, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Insitution, discussed welfare reform on its tenth anniversary with Neal Conan on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation”

NEAL CONAN: …We’re talking about welfare. It’s 10 years since President Clinton signed the landmark Welfare Reform Bill. We want to hear from those of you affected by this legislation. If you’ve been on welfare and got off, you’re on it now, give us a call and tell us how the new rules work for you. New—well, 10 years ago rules.

Our guest is Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who helped write that legislation a decade ago. And Mr. Haskins, you were talking about the success of this program, and to some degree people say a lot of that success has been due to the fairly good economy of the past 10 years.

RON HASKINS: I believe we actually have almost unanimous agreement among analysts and people who follow this issue, including politicians, that there are three important factors that account for its success. Welfare reform is one of them. Think of that as kind of the stick. The second is a great economy, which was part of the cure with a lot of available jobs and even some small opportunities for advancement. We should talk about that.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

HASKINS: And then the third thing is Congress is not usually accused of having vision. But if you start in the mid-1980s and follow through the mid-1990s when the welfare reform bill was passed, Congress made numerous changes in very important legislation that helped families not on welfare—low-income working families. Their benefits were dramatically increased, usually on a bipartisan basis. The single most important program was earned income tax credit, which provides working families with up to $4,500 in cash benefit. Food stamps was changed. Medicaid was dramatically changed that so kids are almost always covered by Medicaid and the mothers are usually covered for a year.

So there were a whole series of changes in the work support system that help low-income families, and that’s the third very important part of welfare reform. Now the argument is which of those was the most important. And, of course, people on the left usually say that the economy and that the work supports are probably the most important, and people on the right say that welfare reform is the most important. And it’ll never be solved.

CONAN: Do you believe, though, that that culture of dependence which so many people talked about ten years ago—do you think that’s been altered?

HASKINS: Absolutely. There’s no question about it. Kate Boo made that very clear. I think Kate would be a person who would not be considered a great friend of welfare reform. And many people on the left who were strongly opposed to the bill have made statements that they think that dependency has been reduced. I think the question is then that the left still brings up frequently is that at what cost, and that there are too many problems that have resulted—poverty has not come down enough, it should have come down more.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

HASKINS: Poverty’s gone up a little bit, now the—as a result of the 2001 recession, but it’s still 20 percent below where it was when the decline started in 1994. So, I think even left would say that there is a huge increase in dependency. And I think the single most important part of that—this is very difficult to study—but it’s a psychological change. It’s a cultural change. It’s something in the atmosphere that it is not appropriate to be on welfare. Kate used the term—I think she said it’s shame—there’s shame associated with it. And I think there’s a lot of truth in that. People feel that they should not be on welfare, that they should be in the American tradition of independence and self-support and earn their own money.

Listen to the Interview