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Welfare Reform’s Silver Lining

The Huffington Post • Aug. 22, 2006

You can generally count me out in heralding welfare reform as an unmitigated success. When President Clinton signed the bill into law ten years ago today, on August 22, 1996, he struck a dicey bargain, based on a premise that only a rich man would find credible: To end poverty, people had merely to go to work.

That’s true if you’ve got minimum wages starting around $20 an hour, public health care, free child care and housing subsidies for anyone who needs it. Unless I’ve somehow missing something in five years on the poverty beat, none of that describes contemporary America. Particularly as our economy has shifted from one of industry–and the high unionization rates that guaranteed livable wages within that sector–to one of largely non-unionized service, there is a wide range of full-time jobs that simply do not pay enough to lift a family out of poverty. In one, very real sense, welfare reform is a broken promise to those that have borne the brunt of it, because they’ve gone to work and yet remain poor. (The New York Times today has an excellent depiction of the complex realities facing the welfare and working poor.)

Yet there is a curious–and admittedly modest–silver lining to welfare reform. Ten years after its passage, a vast army of former welfare recipients, particularly single mothers, have joined the workforce. Research typically shows that, on average, they are not neither much worse nor much better off. The important part here is that, because the poor now work, the stereotype that poverty is a result of laziness wields far less credibility. At the same time, the dominant narrative of poverty has been transformed from a tale of “handouts” to one of struggling workers. This is most obvious in the wide range of public programs now referred to as “work supports,” be they tax credits for low-wage workers, public health insurance programs for kids, affordable child care or food stamps. In fact, most of the money previously spent on direct cash assistance is now spent on these sorts of initiatives.

That marks a significant shift not just in dollars, but in how we discuss, defend, and support this reconfigured social safety net. Instead of the discussion being about whether we ought to spend public money on helping the poor, the debate is increasingly over how much to spend, and on which kinds of programs. Conservative in origin, welfare reform has seeded a radical change in American social policy: A general agreement that government should be helping struggling workers.

Before welfare reform, the easiest way to shoot down public programs was to classify them as “handouts,” something that people too lazy to work got for free. Workers paid taxes, and, many reasoned, why should their hard-earned money go to someone sitting around doing nothing? By removing some of the stigma from government benefits–they’re something offered to those who work hard–welfare reform has opened up space for broad support for social spending.

You can see this most clearly in discussions of programs designed to support the working poor, where you’ll often find ardent supporters among the Republican officials who’ve been charged with trying to make the federal law actually work. Here in New York State, the chair of the state senate’s social services committee, Raymond Meier, is a conservative Republican–and eloquent defender of work supports.

It would be naïve to ignore the deeply troubling trends in U.S. welfare policy today. In October, new federal regulations requiring states to get more work from a greater share of welfare recipients–or face fiscal penalties–will go into effect. The likely result is that states will steal money from their work support programs to try and get those still on the rolls into jobs. In a worst-case scenario, that could mean a drastic reduction–if not eradication–of public health insurance, affordable child care, tax credits and transportation assistance, sending already tenuous working families into a downward spiral.

Still, as welfare reform’s tenth anniversary passes, it’s worthwhile to note one of the few decidedly positive things to come out of it: A potentially fertile ground for fostering broad support for antipoverty programs.

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