Welfare reform's 10th anniversary

SCOTT JAGOW: Ten years ago this very day, President Clinton signed the welform reform act. The President said it would "end welfare as we knew it." The way we knew it was a costly, undisciplined government program. There were plenty of stories about single mothers living on the dole with little incentive to get a job. So what about now?

Well, the number of families on welfare has dropped 60 percent in the last decade. A pretty remarkable number. But . . .

DOUG BESHAROV: Of the 60 percent who left welfare, only about half are working in regular jobs.

JAGOW: Doug Besharov spoke to us from the American Enterprise Institute.

BESHAROV: The other half are making due. Either living with their parents, living with a boyfriend, or just subsisting on various other non-welfare welfare programs. I call it "welfare lite" because we can see many families that are subsisting — and I use the word subsisting here deliberately — on food stamps, housing aid, other forms of assistance that are not pure welfare.

JAGOW: As far as the cost of this to the government, the figures I was reading were also pretty significant in terms of the amount of money the government now spends versus what it spent 10 years ago on welfare. Was that part of the goal and have we succeeded there?

BESHAROV: Well, there was almost a Faustian bargain about total spending. The bill that passed in 1996, 10 years ago, was a block grant. And it said to the states: You can keep all the money we've been giving you, regardless of what happens to the caseloads. Caseloads are down 60 percent, so you would think that somebody is saving 60 percent of expenditures. And the answer is the federal government isn't saving that 60 percent, the states have it.

The states have used that money to expand child care and other programs for low-income Americans. And if you tally up all the state spending and you include the recent increases in Medicaid spending and food-stamp spending, that spending is much higher today than it was in the past.

JAGOW: Back in 1996, the political debate around this was pretty intense. And, of course, the arguments were centered around this system that was created in the 60s and how it had gotten out of control and all of the repercussions of it. Ten years later, what should the debate be now?

BESHAROV: Well, there is almost no debate now, which is part of the problem and why I'm a little unhappy about the way things are going. Anytime both political parties say something is just fine, hunky dory, you know that there are hidden problems. The people who are still on welfare have very deep needs. Some of the people who left welfare have the same or equally deep needs, and we should be having an exploration of how to get to -- Oh, I hate to say this -- but, the root causes of poverty.

We should be promoting programs that reduce non-marital births, a major cause of poverty in this country. We should have programs that promote marriage. We should have programs that try to keep young people in high school. And we should be trying to build strong, safe communities so that when especially women, mothers go to work they are safe when they come home at night.

JAGOW: So, bottom line, after 10 years, what kind of grade are we giving this welfare reform measure?

BESHAROV: I think welfare reform deserves two cheers out of three. That's really very good. Very few things in life deserve three cheers because, I think, three cheers I think means perfection. This is a reform that accomplished much more than anyone anticipated, and with a minimum of additional hardship. Notice I used the word additional, because there is hardship. Low-income families are still suffering. But, by and large, two cheers. Good work. More to do.

JAGOW: Doug, thanks a lot.

BESHAROV: Thank you, very much.

JAGOW: Doug Besharov is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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