Selected Skirmishes: Roll Reversal

The quiet success of welfare reform


NOW President Patricia Ireland, a Clinton supporter, said her organization "would not lift a finger or raise a penny to help a president who would plunge 1 million more women and children into poverty."

So reported the San Diego Union-Tribune on August 23, 1996–the day after the president signed a law ending welfare as we knew it (and as NOW preferred it). In the intervening months we have witnessed the depths of NOW's sincere commitment to the women and children who suffer at the hands (and other body parts) of Bill Clinton. But much more interesting is the great commitment to the job market made by poor people forced to move off the welfare rolls.

That we do not hear more about the overwhelming success of welfare reform is evidence that a fine mist of public policy peyote has been sprayed at the Cumulo-Nimbus level. Our political discourse drifts daffily at ground zero. The Urban Institute's projection that 2.6 million poor souls would be delivered into poverty; the outpouring of Democratic Party support during the '96 election for President Clinton as the one man who could fix what he had wrought; the "where are the jobs going to come from?" taunts by welfare advocates–all are now stashed in some forgotten bin with those New Year's predictions by National Enquirer psychics.

Charles Murray set us up for all of this. When pressed to come up with a helpful solution in his 1984 book documenting the failed legacy of welfare, Losing Ground, Murray shrank from the challenge: Simply abolish welfare, he said, cold turkey.

It was irresponsible, cowardly, unthinkable–and exactly right.

Indeed, within a decade, states began playing with the notion in a politically thinkable way. The problem of long-term welfare dependency was seriously addressed when new and improved programs were ditched in favor of time limits, which made work "requirements" credible. The effort quietly starting taking off in the states about 1993, and federal legislation bolstered the trend in 1996. In the past five years, some 1.92 million welfare cases, 41 percent of the total, have been eliminated nationally. Three million remain.

Maryland's system was the subject of a 1998 study analyzing more than 2,000 welfare recipients who had gone off the dole. According to the Baltimore Sun, the study "found that many fears about welfare reform have not come to pass. Foster care has not been overrun with children whose parents left the welfare rolls…and recipients were not thrown out of programs, as many feared." Indeed, 93 percent of ex-recipients left prior to being kicked off.

But the horror story remains a popular genre. As the Los Angeles Times reports, "In states where welfare rolls have been driven to near unprecedented lows, officials are discovering that it is no longer enough to issue a `get a job' edict and offer some firm prodding to help them make the transition." As heartening as it is that the L.A. Times is discovering such venerable economic concepts as diminishing returns, the bad news for horror fans is this: Florida has successfully pared its rolls by 64 percent, while Wisconsin is down 90 percent, suggesting that states like California–which has cut its rolls only 16 percent since 1993–have a ways to go before the "low-hanging fruit" get scarce.

Still, warns the Times, any further reduction in the Golden State's rolls is likely to stall because various problems–from "substance abuse to low literacy levels to clinical depression–are posing stubborn obstacles to employment." If nothing else, such analysis concedes that pre-reformers ignored such obstacles, bestowing a blanket welfare entitlement on all. You think that might have led to incentive problems? Can you spell enabler, boys and girls?

Now, much as the welfare recipient is given a deadline, policy makers are being forced to deal with choices. Having demonstrated that an open-ended, no-obligation welfare check is about the worst we can do to our fellow man, and having seen the speed with which "work-first" mandates moved people up from relief to jobs, a tougher question arises: What to do with the social service bureaucrats who work in the welfare agencies?

Indeed, the debilitating effects of dependency have surely gone furthest within this cohort. Thus far under the new rules, they have performed professionally, meaning that they have adroitly protected their turf. Amazingly, the old flow of dollars continues, even as there are fewer and fewer "clients" to service.

These vestigial civil servants will continue to scare up rationales for why diminishing welfare rolls will reverse and why "new programs" are more necessary than ever. They pray every night for an economic crash and ponder sophisticated political strategies to stem their loss of market share. After all, they need the work–and good jobs at high wages is what welfare reform is all about.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett (hazlett@primal.ucdavis.edu) is an economist at the University of California, Davis, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.