It’s absolutely mind-boggling. President Obama has decided to gut the single most successful public policy of recent decades-- the 1996 welfare reform.
Earlier this month he issued yet another executive order reversing congressional intent, this time by extending waivers to the work rules in federal welfare law for states that want them.
But the work rules are the heart and soul of welfare reform. Under the bill signed by President Clinton (he was under political duress and declined the first two chances to sign the bill, but brags about it to this day), the work rules were specifically designed to not be waivable. It was believed that the requirement to work would not only incentivize welfare recipients to leave the system, but would also provide them with a path to independence.
The definition of work was key. It meant engaging in gainful employment, not planning to work, not training for work some day or the “multi- year career pathways” and “comprehensive universal engagement system” that welfare bureaucrats are still pushing today.
In the 90s, the Left was outraged at the notion that welfare recipients should be required to work. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan termed the 1996 bill “the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction” and felt “those involved will take this disgrace to their graves.” The Children’s Defense Fund predicted a 12 percent increase in child poverty and more hungry children due to this “moral blot on our nation that will never be forgotten”.
Others chimed in. The National Organization for Women claimed that 12.8 million people on welfare would be “at risk of sinking further into poverty and homelessness.” There would be “more malnutrition and more crime, increased infant mortality and increased drug and alcohol abuse,” according to Peter Edelman, who resigned his post at the Department at Health and Human Services in protest.
They couldn’t have been more wrong. By 2001, 3.5 million fewer people were living in poverty than when the reform was enacted. The overall poverty rate fell by 15 percent while the child poverty rate declined 21 percent. Even better, the poverty rate among black children, which had not budged for a quarter-century, fell by more than a quarter.
There were also significant declines in poverty rates among children of single mothers, “hungry” children and of those living in “severe poverty” with incomes less than half the poverty level. Best of all, welfare dependence was sharply curtailed, with federal welfare caseloads cut by more than half.
Some have argued that it’s not fair to require work in today’s job market. But there’s a solution, short of pursuing policies that would stimulate economic growth and create more jobs (now there’s an idea!). Welfare recipients could be given public works jobs like child care, neighborhood revitalization, recycling and other needed tasks. It wouldn’t be ideal but it would preserve many of the benefits of reform and produce some goods and services useful to society.
Tellingly, Obama didn’t reference the job situation in his memo announcing the new policy. His administration is focused not on pragmatic concerns, like raising people out of poverty, but on “social justice.” They clearly want more, not fewer, people dependent on government programs like food stamps. They have marketed that program extensively, even going so far as to collaborate with the Mexican government in pitching it to Mexican nationals. They celebrate its quadrupling under Obama’s watch.
Many on the Left still see the poor as victims of an unjust society who are morally entitled to the fruits of the labor of their more fortunate countrymen. In their view, it is demeaning to require anything in return. That’s an attitude probably common among community organizers, President Obama’s previous occupation.
The president’s efforts to buck up his core support base is not only dreadful policy, it’s unconstitutional. Unfortunately this president has also unilaterally rewritten the law on immigration, marriage, religious freedom, education and energy policies recently. He’s discovered no one can stop him if he chooses to ignore Congress and the Constitution.
In the upcoming election, Americans will have the opportunity to restore policies that promote independence from government and save much needed funds in an era of spiraling debt. Here’s hoping they’re paying attention.
East Valley resident Tom Patterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired physician and former state senator.