What Needs to Happen Next with Welfare Reform

The Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector and Jennifer Marshall have produced a paper that excellently outlines the two visions that America has for welfare.  They contend that the goal of welfare should be to get people out of poverty and assist them on a path to independence.  The alternative to this is, of course, continued and prolonged government dependence.

Their suggestion, then, is that the work of welfare reform is unfinished business that needs to be completed if greater numbers of Americans are to free themselves of the rut of government dependence.  And, welfare reform took a hit when the Obama administration gutted the successful 1996 work requirement.

To put the discussion the proper context, they explain that poverty in the United States is not the “Dickensian privation suggested by advocacy groups and the media.”  Did you know that the typical poor American lives in an apartment or house that is in good repair and is not overcrowded?  Even more clarity is provided when you think about the fact that the average home of a poor American is larger than the home of the average citizen in France, the United Kingdom, or Germany. 

To be clear, they are not reveling in the fact that poor people in the United States don’t lead a grandiose lifestyle.  However, they use these facts to highlight the true poverty in the United States: “behavioral poverty.”

They explain:

Material poverty has been replaced by a far deeper “behavioral poverty” — a vicious cycle of unwed childbearing, social dysfunction, and welfare dependency in poor communities. Even as the welfare state has improved the material comfort of low-income Americans by transferring enormous financial resources to them, it has exacerbated these behavioral problems. The result has been the disintegration of the work ethic, family structure, and social fabric of large segments of the American population, which has in turn created a new dependency class.

That dependency is indeed measureable, they add, and has been measured by the U.S. Census Bureau, which showed that 46 million Americans were “poor” in 2010.  Here again, the context is important.   For example, the poverty measure does not include the more than $800 billion in means-tested government cash, food, housing, and medical benefits that low income Americans receive.

What the measure does indicate, however, is dependence versus self-sufficiency.  And it indicates a great degree of government dependence.

Conservatives have as their end goal as few people dependent on the government as possible.  In other words, we want people to be self-sufficient, thriving members of society.

So what is to be done?

The 1996 welfare reform law signed by former President Bill Clinton was a proven means of getting individuals and families out of the rut of government dependence.  An essential element of success for this law was the work requirement, which was that able bodied adults prepare for work.  Indeed, it was only after this reform that the number of people on welfare significantly decreased for the first time in four decades.  In fact, within five years of the enactment of TANF, caseloads dropped by approximately 50%.

Unfortunately, President Obama gutted that successful work requirement, which was a lawless action.  Obviously – if our goal is to facilitate a process whereby as many Americans as possible are self sufficient – he’s backpedaling.

Encouraging independence may not be the liberals’ goal, but it is the goal of conservatives.  And that is the only goal befitting of human dignity.

In the final analysis, Obama’s actions must be undone with regard to gutting the work requirement.  Rector and Marshall also lay out three other necessary steps:

First, workfare must be expanded to other means-tested programs like food stamps and public housing. Second, the overall costs of all our ballooning welfare programs must be controlled through a cap on aggregate spending. Third, serious attention must be paid to the crisis of unwed parenting that drives so much of today’s poverty.

These steps would facilitate the transition of people dependent on the government to a position of independence, dignity, and prosperity.  This is indubitably a worthy and necessary goal.

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