Don't Mess with Success

Congress ought to re-up welfare reform as is.


"Good jobs must be the aim of welfare reform," President Bush declared in his State of the Union address. "As we reauthorize these important reforms, we must always remember that the goal is to reduce dependency on government and offer every American the dignity of a job."

That Bush tossed these lines into his address must strike people as odd. Didn't Congress put welfare reform in the "task completed" column back in 1996? It didn't. The 1996 reform expires in September, and the angling to undo it is already underway.

Some people never thought the reform would succeed. Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) spoke for many when he declared from the Senate floor, "We are putting our children at risk with absolutely no evidence that this radical idea has even the slightest chance of success." Two prominent Clinton administration officials quit to protest the heartless act. The Urban Institute churned out a study that claimed in exquisite econometric detail that the bill would hurl 2.6 million Americans, 1.1 million of them children, into poverty.

None of the predictions came to pass. It turned out that welfare recipients were capable of getting and holding jobs, and millions of them did just that. At one point, 6,000 people were leaving the roles each day. The effect of working was—big surprise—an increase in income for those earning the paychecks. Critics will allow the new system some of its success—they can't deny it. But it wasn't long until they started fretting about recession.

"It does OK in calm waters," Jared Bernstein, an economist at the left-of-center Economic Policy Institute, told National Journal. "But my feeling is that in a storm it won't do so well." Now that the skies have clouded up a bit, welfare advocates are looking to remodel the program. Like all remodel jobs, it'll take money. Sponsors of a Democratic bill want the federal grants increased automatically each year, a doubling of the money for child care grants, and hundreds of millions more to reward states for reducing poverty. They also want to ease up on work requirements, returning to the days when cooling one's heels in a two year education program counted as work.

They'll have plenty of help from the press.

"A yearlong struggle over welfare policy will begin on Thursday when House Democrats offer a proposal to convert the 1996 welfare law into a tool for reducing poverty," lead a January 24 article in The New York Times. Reporter Robert Pear buries the fact that the 1996 bill is already the best anti-poverty weapon the federal government has devised. Today, 2.6 million fewer adults and 2.8 million fewer children live in poverty than in 1996. As a bumper sticker put it in a less enlightened time, "Fight Poverty, Get a Job."

Now the nation's governors, for whom welfare reform proved to be a windfall, have entered the debate. Clinton's reform froze federal funding at record levels and delivered it to the states in block grants. As caseloads declined, states have more money to spend on each person. That, of course, is not how they see it. "When we took the block grant, we took the economic risk in all of this," executive director of the National Governor's Association Raymond C. Scheppach told the Times. "What we're saying now is that we are willing to do that, except when there's a huge economic disruption."

The states didn't take any huge risks—at least not any risks that payed off as well as Democratic National Committee boss Terry McAuliffe's investment in the now bankrupt Global Crossing or Hillary Clinton's bet on cattle futures. And they aren't spending more money. In fact, states are only spending 75 percent of what they spent in 1996. What he's actually saying is that states have been on a spending binge, the bill is now come due, and now they want even more federal tax money. It's time for the governors to practice some "personal responsibility" of their own and try to put their books in balance.

With the war, ten Enron investigations, a fight over campaign finance reform, and Sen. Robert Byrd's ongoing efforts to complete the federal government's relocation to West Virginia, Congress has plenty to do and plenty of projects to spend our money on. Governors can dip into their own pockets. Congress shouldn't mess with success. It ought to savor the rare experience.