Aug 03 2018
True bipartisan public policy reform is rare these days. Successful public policy reform is even rarer. But that is exactly what happened in 1996 when a Republican House, a Republican Senate, and a Democratic President fought through a toxic partisan political environment to pass a historic realignment of the American welfare state.
At the time, President Clinton called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, “the end of welfare as we know it.” And the legislation was a sea change in American welfare policy. No longer would the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program guarantee a check each month with no strings attached. Instead, most welfare recipients would be expected to work, or participate in job training programs, after two years of receiving benefits.
At the time, many on the left predicted these new work requirements would be Armageddon for struggling families. Sen. Patrick Moynihan (R-NY) predicted we would “find children sleeping on grates, picked up in the morning frozen.” Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) said we would see “children begging for money, children begging for food, eight- and nine-year old prostitutes.” And Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) called the bill “legislative child abuse.”
But guess what? The left was wrong.
Between 1996 and 2000 single-mother welfare caseloads fell by 53 percent, their employment rate increased by 10 percentage points, and their poverty rate fell by 10 percent. And the consumption-based poverty rate among single parent families has continued to fall since then: from 23 percent in 1995, to 15 percent in 2000, to 9 percent in 2010.
Unfortunately, some on the left have never accepted the reality of welfare reform. To this day they continue to deny the ability of work requirements to move struggling families out of dependence and into the workforce. Fortunately these activists have failed to undo the changes made to federal cash-assistance programs made in 1996.
But they have managed to undermine the success of welfare reform in other ways.
Medicaid used to be a narrowly targeted program designed to provide health care for only our most vulnerable populations including individuals with disabilities, low-income children, pregnant women, and seniors. But due to a number of expansions, Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion being the biggest, Medicaid is now a broad-based welfare program. In 1969 just 6 percent of Americans were on Medicaid. Today 22 percent of Americans use the program.
Food stamps have also seen a similar transformation from a cyclical program providing temporary relief during rough economic times, to a way of life for far too many Americans. Technically referred to as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, SNAP’s participation rate used to rise during recessions and then quickly fall after. But due to expanded eligibility rules passed during the Great Recession, that didn’t happen this time. A full nine years after the recession ended in 2009, the proportion of the U.S. population receiving SNAP is 48 percent higher now than when the recession began in 2007.
By expanding non-cash welfare programs like Medicaid and SNAP far beyond their original intended scope, the left has accomplished an end run around the ground breaking successful work requirement reforms made to cash welfare programs in 1996.
It is not surprising that this increase in non-cash welfare dependence coincided with a drop in labor force participation among working-age adults. Between 2000 and 2017 the overall labor force participation rate among working age adults fell from 77.6 to 74.2 percent.
America works better when Americans are working. We need to reverse the recent trend in falling labor force participation by applying the same work requirements that worked for cash-welfare programs to non-cash welfare programs.
Families do better when they move from dependence to self-sufficiency. And we as law makers should do everything we can to make sure our safety net programs are designed to make that happen.