Priceless labor

After five years of welfare reform, a new debate begins

Issue: "Trial and terror," Sept. 1, 2001

This week is halfway between two events: Last Wednesday's fifth anniversary of the signing of the welfare reform law, next Monday's recognition of Labor Day. But in many ways those two days are one in their celebration of the importance of work. Congress, charged with reassessing welfare reform this fall and next year, needs to understand that.

One thing I remember from several conversations about poverty-fighting with Governor Bush in Austin during the mid-'90s is his sense that people, whether rich or poor, need to build the good kind of self-esteem not by accepting false compliments but by succeeding on a job. Mr. Bush before 1989 had money and connections, but succeeding as managing general partner of the Texas Rangers was crucial to his sense of making it on his own.

The number of dollars involved is different, but a Bush-like stress on success will be one element of that upcoming Congressional debate on welfare. The kick-off came early this month at a Washington, D.C., forum where Elizabeth Jones, a welfare mom turned police officer, said that "making the transition from welfare to work hasn't been easy, [but] I want my children to grow up with dignity." Former welfare mom Lou Ann Cataneo said similarly, "I want to be productive and I want to be responsible. And I've accomplished that."

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Such comments aren't unusual-I've heard them hundreds of times across the country-except for the venue. The ex-welfarists were speaking at the liberal Brookings Institution, and liberal policy wonks nodded their heads as Norma Costa of Miami remembered her "first day at work as one of the happiest moments of my life." She spoke of "feeling satisfaction after each task that I completed, and after each skill that I gained."

Wendell Primus, who resigned his Clinton administration post in 1996 to protest that year's welfare reform, honestly admitted earlier this month that "welfare reform is working better than I thought it would.... The sky isn't falling anymore. Whatever we have been doing over the last five years, we ought to keep going."

Some liberals haven't been so honest. I'm still waiting for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who voted against welfare reform and spoke of kids being "punished," to admit that he was wrong. Even the liberal New York Times has admitted that "Five years after Congress overhauled welfare laws, with the intention of creating more two-parent families, the proportion of poor American children living in households with two adults is on the rise."

Nor has Peter Edelman, who also resigned in protest in 1996, acknowledged that he was mistaken. At that time he declared, "I have devoted the last 30-plus years to doing whatever I could in reducing poverty in America," and he thought welfare reform would make poverty skyrocket. (During Mr. Edelman's 30 years the United States spent over $6 trillion to fight poverty and reduced poverty by less than 1 percent.)

In the past five years, as the welfare rolls have been cut in half, income among the poor has increased. A good economy during most of that period helped, but careful studies have shown that welfare reform legislation itself was responsible for more than 60 percent of the rise of employment among single moms, and 83 percent of the rise among black single mothers.

But has income increased sharply? No-and that's a blot on the record, according to liberalism. The liberal goal in poverty-fighting is merely to get money to the poor. One study showed that the poorest 40 percent of single-mother families increased their earnings by about $2,300 per family on average between 1995 and 1999, but disposable income increased by only $300 on average, because the families were losing some welfare benefits in the process.

Maybe the law needs to be tweaked a bit so that initial earnings will increase faster, but here are the two questions we need to emphasize. First, what will happen to the income of former welfare moms over the next five, 10, or 20 years? It takes time for habits to change so that people become used to working hard every day, and it takes time to advance on the job from entry level to management. It's good that those who have gone to work have a little more money than they used to have, but the big gains are still ahead.

The second question is even more important: Do the former welfare moms, and their children, gain a sense of accomplishment? The Brookings discussion (and my own interviewing) suggests that most do. If that evidence holds up, the reckoning Congress does over the next year should parallel that of an oft-televised credit card commercial: Total up the costs but conclude that some things are priceless.

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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