August 22, 2011 marks the 15-year anniversary of the signing of the landmark welfare reform legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. Expert Ron Haskins says the law has largely succeeded in its goals of reducing poverty, especially for single mothers and children. However, the recession has taken a toll, and budget pressures bode ill for anti-poverty programs.
The 15 Year Anniversary of the Welfare Reform Law
“It was an extremely ugly congressional debate. Amazing! I mean Democrats calling Republicans Nazis and…just horrible stuff. But in the end half the Democrats on the Hill supported it, almost every Republican, and it was signed by a Democratic president. The bipartisan vote on welfare reform was actually greater in percentage terms than the bipartisan vote on Medicare in 1965. In the end it was a rare example of a very ugly debate where people really disagreed, and in the end they came together. Since then, to my way of thinking, it has been quite successful.”
What were the greatest accomplishments of the legislation?
“Welfare reform had a big impact on employment by females (especially poorly-educated females), and had an effect on child poverty (namely that it declined). From my own work I can tell you that child poverty declined by [20% in four years] (Ed.: Video mistates statistics. Haskins later corrected himself with this figure.) The child poverty among female-headed families, and child poverty among black children, both had reached their historic lows. They plummeted. It was primarily because the mothers were working. It was not because of any increase in government benefits. The most important point here is that if the nation is going to have an impact on poverty, we have to deal with black kids and we have to deal with kids from female-headed families because their poverty rates are, simply, so high.”
Where has the law failed in its intent?
“There are a lot of moms who can’t make it under this kind of demanding regime. Most of them can get a job, but they cannot hold it. So they get a job; they lose their job; then they try to find another one; they lose that one. So they are in and out. Some of them just try it once and they are out. Research shows that these are usually moms who have two or more problems – problems such as depression (which is a big issue among welfare mothers); three or more kids (which raises issues about child care); problems with transportation; problems with housing. Most mothers can deal with one of those things and can keep going, but once they hit two or three (especially) there really is a drop-off.”
What has been the effect of the recession?
“During the recession people expected that when jobs were tougher (it takes longer to find a job) there still should be work requirements. People still ought to try to get back in the labor force just like the typical American does, but it will take longer. [They assumed] roles would build up and they haven’t. It makes you wonder exactly why and what we should do about it.”
Will budget pressures affect funding for welfare programs?
“Out of all the entitlement money [welfare] is a block grant. It would be very easy to cut. In fact, you wouldn’t have to change a word of the legislation. All you would have to do is go right to the line that says how much money it is and just cut that back. That is going to be tempting. That is going to be very tempting. So yes, I think there is a possibility that there could be less money. Ironically, the more aggressive the country is (and that the Congress and the President are) in solving what I think is the most important problem facing the country – that if we’re not solvent we are really in trouble – the more difficult it could turn out to be, and will turn out to be, for some programs. Maybe [don’t cut] program A, but program B. And if you don’t cut program A, then you have to cut program B even more. There are some real issues here, and there will be cuts for sure.”
[On the politics of climate impacts in the U.S.] The political alignment around climate impacts is almost the exact opposite of the political alignment around emissions control.
[On the geographic distribution of climate impacts in the U.S.] The damages to the Republican-electing congressional districts is almost double what it is for the Democratic-voting districts.
[On Brookings research on climate impacts and human health] When you look at the out years, all of these factors have an impact on what people care about, but the really dominant effect is mortality. Literally, there’ll be climate change killing people.