GOP Leaders Declare Welfare Reform A Success
By Clare Nolan, Senior Writer
WASHINGTON - Republican leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives took to a podium at the Capitol Thursday to trumpet the achievements of their welfare policies, which they claim have resulted in a profound cultural shift away from a psychology of dependence to "a path to the American dream." They highlighted statistics showing improvements in economic well-being for America's most impoverished families and they claimed the data prove the wisdom of the 1996 welfare law.
Exhibiting a combination of bitterness and relish, and an array of glossy charts, they declared that legislation enacted by the Republican Congress in 1996 over the strong objections of most Democrats has led directly to marked improvements in the economic well-being of many poor Americans.
In an attempt to pre-empt their critics, the GOP leaders brushed aside suggestions that much of the recent progress is attributable to the roaring economy and not to changes in welfare policy.
"In three short years, we've broken the mold from a lifestyle of generational welfare dependency," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois said, as he stood flanked by Representatives Bill Archer of Texas, Clay Shaw of Florida and Nancy Johnson of Connecticut.
Archer, Shaw and Johnson were chief authors of the 1996 federal law, which ended the 61 year-old federal guarantee of welfare assistance and transferred much of the control over the nation's welfare system to the states. Archer is Chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
"Plain and simple, what works is work," Archer said, referring to the philosophy behind the 1996 law: Every state now forces most adults to work in exchange for assistance.
"Undoubtedly, this is the most successful piece of legislation in this half century," Shaw said.
"The change is profound. The change is exciting," said Johnson, as her aide flipped over chart after chart showing a 44 percent drop in welfare caseloads nationwide, a sharp increase in the number of never-married mothers who are working and a modest drop in the percentage of children in poverty.
The House leaders also highlighted a General Accounting Office report released Thursday that found relatively high employment rates among former welfare recipients.
The GAO examined surveys taken by seven states of adults who left the rolls after welfare reform. In Indiana, Maryland, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington and Wisconsin, the GAO found 61 to 87 percent of former recipients had worked at some point since leaving welfare.
Although the results of the state surveys cannot be easily compared to earlier studies, these employment rates are higher than what was generally witnessed under the old federal welfare system.
The GAO also reported that, in three states, 19 to 30 percent of former recipients returned to welfare within three to 15 months.
The GAO did not look at a recent report from Florida, one of the largest states to follow-up on welfare leavers so far.
Florida reported 75 percent of former recipients had worked since leaving welfare, but it also found some alarming signs of increased hardship among former recipients. Almost 50 percent said they had fallen behind on rent. More than 42 percent reported problems affording food and 32 percent said they would return to welfare if they could.
Both Johnson and Archer also heralded the increase in the numbers of single mothers who have entered the workforce. Between 1993 and 1998, Johnson said, the number of never-married mothers who were working increased 40 percent. Single mothers, particularly mothers who never married, are the most likely to rely on welfare assistance.
The leaders acknowledged that most former welfare recipients are moving into low-wage, unstable jobs with few benefits. But, they said, some work is better than complete dependence. "To me, it is far better for someone to move into a part-time job... then to stay enmeshed and mired in a welfare program," Archer said.
House leaders also emphasized the transformation in welfare offices across the country. "Now when able-bodied adult walk into the welfare office, they are given help preparing for and finding work," Johnson said.
The same studies the GAO examined for its report on employment, however, also provide evidence that many welfare recipients are looking for and finding jobs on their own, without much help from the welfare office. When Washington State asked recipients if the welfare office had helped them get a job, only 20 percent said yes. Former recipients in South Carolina and Wisconsin generally gave their state's welfare system less than favorable reviews.
Only 12 percent of recipients in Florida said the welfare program helped them get a job.
"Some states are further along that path than others, but it is uneven and incomplete," said Mark Greenberg of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a liberal Washington research and advocacy group.
In the larger states, welfare caseworkers continue to struggle under heavy caseloads, just as they did before reform. According to Greenberg, caseworkers in Illinois say they average 284 cases each. In California, where almost one in four welfare recipients live, welfare offices have just begun to make the transition to employment centers.
The Republicans seemed particularly sensitive to claims that the economy is as much behind the drop in welfare rolls as new, stricter welfare policies.
"We do not argue that all these outcomes were caused by the welfare reform law," Johnson said. "But there is strong evidence some of them were."
"We had a booming economy in 1983 to 1989 and the welfare rolls continued to go up," Archer said.
Advocates for the poor argue that it is very difficult to separate how much any one of a myriad of factors has contributed to recent successes for some welfare families.
Nearly everyone agrees a combination of different policies is helping more single mothers move from welfare to work, including: the new emphasis on employment, tougher welfare rules, an expanded earned income tax credit (which provides a tax rebate to the working poor), the lowest unemployment rate in decades, expanded medical coverage for the working poor and expanded child care assistance.
Many have also speculated that a downturn in the economy will stop or possibly reverse the gains some families are making.
"It may be the same policies would work differently in a very different economy," Greenberg said.