Making It

Life under welfare reform isn't perfect, but it's better than before.


When Congress passed welfare reform in 1996, D.C.'s poverty experts predicted that child poverty would skyrocket, homeless shelters would overflow, and soup kitchen lines would grow endlessly. Then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) declared, "We are putting our children at risk with absolutely no evidence that this radical idea has even the slightest chance of success."

Yet the idea driving the reform was not radical, but proven and simple: Increase the rewards for working and decrease the rewards for not working, and more people will start punching a clock for a living rather than filling out forms. That's exactly what happened. Since 1996, welfare rolls have dropped by more than 5 million people–at one point, 6,000 a day. Employment shot up, and the number of poor kids fell, with 2.6 million fewer children living in poverty.

Faced with such success, poverty mavens have moved the goal posts. The current welfare law can't be declared a success because, in just under five years, it hasn't totally eliminated poverty and turned former welfare recipients into Martha Stewarts skilled in the fine arts of both homemaking and money making.

"It's not really clear that simply moving women into jobs–especially part-time, low-wage jobs–will advance their children's preparation for school," Sharon Lynn Kagan told the Associated Press. Kagan was opining about a study she co-directed, the second in a three-part effort undertaken by Stanford, Yale, Berkeley, and the Teachers College at Columbia University. (Of course, the federal government already funds Head Start, a program designed to get children ready for school, and it shows no lasting effect. If welfare reform is a failure in this regard, then why isn't Head Start?)

Kagan's study surveys a sample of families in California, Connecticut, and Florida. It finds many disturbing things. Former welfare recipients struggled financially. One in five mothers sometimes served smaller meals than desired. A startling number–40 percent–report symptoms of depression. Even while starting to make it on their own, the women have failed to improve their family life: In some cases mothers told their children fewer stories, didn't sing as many songs, and played with them less. Those sing-songs were replaced with sitcoms, as children increased their TV time by 20 minutes each weekday. Mothers who worked spent less time with their children and more time with other adults. And as they grew older, the little ones spent more time in the care of others, especially center care.

The implication is clear: By pushing women to work, welfare reform cheated the children, who traded in a doting mom for a low-paid surrogate. Fortunately, this implication is wrong. Kagan's study–and most other studies on the effects of the 1996 welfare reform law–shows that, while life for newly employed former welfare recipients is tough, their families are actually better off than those who still aren't working. Employed women suffer less depression than unemployed women. Their children watch far less television than the children of the unemployed. And the children in center-based day care–those who spent the least amount of time in the care of their immediate family–show the largest gains in such skills as counting to 20 and spelling their first name.

The proper benchmark for success is not whether women become clones of Martha Stewart or suddenly strike the perfect balance between work and family imagined by Ph.D. poverty experts–they most certainly haven't. It's whether they've improved their lives since the time when they had to wait for the mailman to deliver a government check each month. All signs are that they have.

Despite all the personal struggles the researchers observe, three in four women surveyed say that working made them "better off than a year ago." That's all we need to know.