So far, so good

Welfare reform is working, but hard challenges remain

Issue: "Postmodern politics," Sept. 12, 1998

With all the turmoil on Wall Street, there is reason to celebrate one economic development: Since federal welfare reform legislation was signed into law two years ago, several million people formerly on welfare have gained new jobs and new hope.

Decreases in the welfare rolls have been particularly evident in states like Texas that jump-started the process with their own legislation. The expression "ABODs" in the welfare trade refers to able-bodied individuals (80 percent of them are men) without dependents; Texas once had 86,000 ABODs on the rolls, and now has 17,000. The harder cases are those involving single moms under what was the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program; that number has decreased from 280,000 to 140,000.

According to the welfare lobby's propaganda two years ago, such decreases would signal starvation among children-and yet, reporters have been hard-pressed to find tear-jerking stories. Some single moms have taken jobs, which is not good for their children, but studies have shown that growing up in dependence on government has even worse long-term consequences. Other single moms have gotten married, which is the real solution.

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Ironically, those attacks on welfare reform in 1995 and 1996, by exaggerating the extent of change and pretending that in the future mean-spirited people would refuse to dole out even pennies, probably turned out to be helpful: Some welfare recipients were scared enough by such propaganda to make decisive changes in their lives.

The improvements, of course, have come while the economy has remained strong, but the impact of legislation should not be dismissed for that reason. Previous boom periods during the 1960s and 1980s lead not to fewer welfare cases but to more. What's different this time is that a recaptured biblical understanding is visible in those state welfare offices where administrators are trying to further reform, not sabotage it.

That understanding, implicit in the 1996 welfare reform legislation, is that human beings are made in God's image and therefore are fundamentally different from the rest of creation. At the same time, we are also sinfully inclined to laziness and the desire to steal what belongs to others, instead of working for advancement. The combination of uniqueness plus original sin allows ample opportunity to shine, when our sinful tendencies are channeled into productive activities, or to mess up.

Applied to welfare reform, this understanding means that poor individuals should be treated as neither pets (put some food in the bowl, pat them on the head) nor saints. It means that we should not favor government programs that lead people into temptation. The Great Society's welfare system did exactly that: Individuals who saw that work led to no economic benefit in the short term tended to conclude that struggle with its considerable discomforts wasn't worth the bother.

In essence, if incentives that help people to be the best they can be are removed, what do we expect? If we reward people for getting into bad shape, aren't we buying trouble? Not if the liberal view- that people are naturally good and will strive unless their environment imprisons them-is true. So the battle over welfare was really a battle of worldviews, or religions: man as naturally good or naturally sinful.

The big change two years ago included a legislative recognition that American society would no longer give poor people incentives to become losers. It was based on the understanding that if a man gets a job, any job, and does not quit, his chances of being poor are small. It was based on the understanding that if a woman does not become pregnant outside of marriage, and if she either gets married and stays married or gets a job, any job, and works at it, her chances of being poor are small.

The new understanding was based on one simple lesson: Work works. Before, under the federal JOBs program, a welfare client would be asked to choose an occupation for which he would like training. If the client said "a nurse," he could take classes on nursing; if after two years the client then said, "I've decided to be a welder," more classes could ensue. Officials kept track of classroom attendance but often ignored the question of how many people actually got jobs.

Now, the procedure in states that are serious about welfare reform is to get clients into real jobs and encourage them to work hard in those jobs; that's the road to advancement. Texas officials used to list 29 allowable excuses for quitting a job to go back on welfare, and #30 was, "other." Now there are nine, and caseworkers are told to ask hard questions.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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