In his essay criticizing welfare reform (“Unfinished Business,” Commonweal, February 29), Thomas Massaro says that assistance to low-income single mothers “has vanished from our collective radar.” Massaro is upset that so little money is used to fund Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and that the nation has failed to reach a political consensus on the impact (negative, in his view) of the 1996 reforms. He blames Republicans for their continued regressive policy priorities: freezing welfare spending, increasing work requirements, and promoting marriage initiatives.

A decade ago I would have embraced much of this assessment of welfare reform. Like Massaro, I blamed Republicans for inadequate funding and regressive policy initiatives. Yet the research I did for my 2007 book, Welfare Transformed: Universalizing Family Policies That Work (Oxford University Press), changed my perspective substantially. Evaluating welfare studies, interviewing policy experts, members of the Clinton administration, those who have left welfare, and welfare-to-work administrators, I became convinced that welfare reform was remarkably successful—far more successful than many liberals understand or admit.

The widespread view on the Left holds that Clinton-era welfare reform was mean-spirited and adversely affected millions of defenseless families. But the truth is that the “Make Work Pay” policies of the Clinton administration, with welfare reform as their centerpiece, reduced poverty among single-mother households by an unprecedented 25 percent. And though their poverty rates increased slightly during the slow-growth period at the beginning of this decade, those increases were substantially smaller than during previous economic slowdowns. Nor were the jobs obtained dead-end. In fact, wage increases for the lowest-paid workers over the past fifteen years exceeded the national average, and income supports enabled a strong majority of welfare leavers to move ahead substantially. In addition, teen birthrates dropped dramatically, nearly halving for fifteen- to seventeen-year-olds, the population most at risk for poverty. Welfare-reform policies also initiated an effective redirection of urban community colleges toward credential and vocational programs. The reality is that virtually every measure of economic well-being saw substantial improvement in the wake of Clinton-era welfare reform.

Liberals have often relied on isolated, problematic studies to question this success story; or have focused on the relatively small percentage of families who have been harmed. For instance, while Massaro is correct that TANF expenditures have remained small, he ignores the dramatic increase in other funding directed to low-income families: the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the child tax credit, food stamps, state child health-care programs (S-CHIP), child-care funding, and a host of state initiatives. When these aid programs are combined, the total funding dwarfs aid provided to low-income families during the 1980s. Thanks to these support programs, even a single mother with two children and wage income of only $12,000—thirty-five hours weekly at $7 per hour—ends up having disposable income of over $20,000, most often with health-care and child-care benefits for her children.

Liberals rejected welfare reform primarily because it insisted on requiring recipients to engage in activities as a condition for eligibility. They find such policies distasteful, especially given our society’s long history of racial discrimination. And there is no question that most black recipients in the early 1990s were victims. The dramatic loss of urban manufacturing had sapped their communities of jobs, and the crack-cocaine epidemic substituted criminal undertakings for gainful employment. In this environment, many young women lost hope and fell into dysfunctional behavior that only worsened their long-term prospects. For fear of “blaming the victim,” some liberals have been unwilling to concede that in order to break a destructive cycle, the welfare system had to require many recipients to change their behavior. This fear caused liberals to reject efforts to obtain child-support payments from nonresident fathers—even though such policies have increased collection five-fold in the past decade. It has also blinded them to evidence that many of the pilot programs included in President George W. Bush’s marriage initiative have proved beneficial to low-income families—not only strengthening relationships but providing substantial training and employment resources for nonresident fathers.

Such evidence led some of the most severe critics of welfare-reform legislation, including Christopher Jenks, Jason DeParle, and David Ellwood, to change their positions. But many have not; and it’s clear that when it comes to the plight of low-income families, liberal Democrats are far from blameless. In spring 1994 they rejected a more generous set of reforms than those eventually enacted in 1996, and in 2002 they rejected President Bush’s compromise, again a proposal more generous than the reauthorization enacted five years later. Each time, hostility to compromise, and hopes of winning upcoming elections, trumped rational calculations, costing welfare recipients much-needed funding.

Too often, liberals have ignored promising policy initiatives that arise from welfare reform. For instance, as those who leave welfare begin to earn more money, they confront a flaw in the federal tax system-they begin to lose tax benefits, food stamps, and other subsidies, leaving meager gains in their disposable income. A progressive tax-policy adjustment that allowed more low-income workers to keep their federal benefits could help more families climb out of poverty. Similarly, imperfections in the current unemployment-compensation system often prevent workers from qualifying for benefits; policy reforms to patch those imperfections would help many workers, not just welfare leavers.

One hopes that liberals will begin to support these efforts. Along with high-employment policies and continued increases in the minimum wage, government can provide effective help for many working mothers, most of whom have never been and never will be welfare recipients. With elections looming in the fall, it’s time for Democrats—including Barack Obama—to stop being stubborn, embrace the beneficial aspects of welfare reform, and promote specific policies to enhance the well-being of our nation’s most vulnerable families.


This essay is part of the Issues 2008 series of commentaries on the important issues confronting the next president and Congress.


Published in the 2008-09-26 issue: View Contents
Robert Cherry is Brueklundian Professor of Economics at Brooklyn College.
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