In Defense of Welfare Reform

Ten years of a controversial policy that worked wonders


Welfare reform had long been a contentious issue in American politics. In the 1980s and early 1990s, ending "welfare as we know it" was a staple of cheap political rhetoric for Republicans and Democrats alike. It was also widely regarded as a nearly utopian goal. Then, President Clinton made the drastic overhaul of the welfare system a reality, in a bill signed into law on Aug. 22, 1996. Ten years later, the welfare reform report card disproves much scaremongering on the left and points to some important accomplishments, but it also highlights how much there still is to accomplish, both in reducing poverty and strengthening families.

When welfare reform passed, dire predictions abounded. The legislation, designed to end welfare as a system of permanent dependency and get recipients off the dole and into the workplace, was denounced as a policy driven by greed, heartlessness, and even racism, a betrayal of the weakest in our midst. Anna Quindlen, then a New York Times columnist, referred to it as "the politics of meanness." Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund cried "national child abandonment." Senator Edward M. Kennedy spoke of "legislative child abuse."

Some feminists, such as authors and commentators Katha Pollitt and Barbara Ehrenreich, were incensed by what they saw as welfare reform's punitive attitude toward single mothers, the majority of adult welfare recipients. Welfare mothers, they claimed, were being demonized in misogynistic rhetoric, even though it's safe to say that the harshest language ever used about women on welfare never approached the vitriol toward "deadbeat dads" (most of whom are also poor and working in marginal jobs at best).

Paradoxically, antiwelfare-reform feminists, most of whom had assailed the idea of full-time motherhood as a noble female vocation, found themselves defending a system that paid women to stay home with children. They mocked—rightly, in some cases—the hypocrisy of right-wingers who attacked poor single mothers for not holding jobs, yet lamented the rise in middle-class married mothers working outside the home. But surely it was at least as inconsistent for those on the left to hail the movement of married women into the workforce, and then treat full-time motherhood as an entitlement for poor single women. No, single women did not have babies to collect welfare checks; but for those who were trapped in lifelong dependency, the welfare system functioned as an enabler.

In fact, as writer Kay Hymowitz demonstrates in an article in the spring issue of City Journal, the past 10 years' policies have been highly successful in getting single mothers off welfare and into the workforce. From 1994 to 2004, recipients of Aid to Families With Dependent Children dropped from 5.1 million to 2 million. About 60 percent of the women who left welfare have moved into jobs; many others have employed partners and are studying to acquire job skills. The predicted surge in child poverty, and horrors such as child abandonment and child prostitution, have not materialized. Indeed, poverty rates for African-American children hit an all-time low in 2001 and rose only slightly during the subsequent recession.

There remains, however, much to be done. Perhaps the biggest weakness of welfare reform is that it has focused almost exclusively on women, neglecting the all-important issue of their partners and the fathers of their children. Many reports on the struggles of single mothers trying to get themselves and their children out of poverty treat the men in these women's and children's lives as an obstacle to success, offering stories of hard-working women held back by lazy, feckless, often violent boyfriends. In some cases the stereotype is true; but many of those men, like many women, are trapped by a lack of resources and skills and by a subculture that offers few models of successful work and parenting. And some, as reporter and author Jason DeParle and others have documented, are trying their best to stay connected to their children.

Today, there is a need for more efforts, in the public and private sector alike, to encourage employment and child-rearing among poor fathers. One of the baneful effects of the old welfare system was that it enshrined the idea of family and children as a female sphere while turning men into outsiders. Reintegrating men into families will not end poverty or solve all social problems, but it will be a major step in the right direction.