Cover Story

First comes reform, then comes marriage

TeamBush seeks to upgrade the welfare-reform effort from success in promoting work to new success in promoting two-parent families among the poor

Issue: "Welfare to work," March 16, 2002

in Washington-Yolanda Cleveland is a single mother in Washington who has spent several years on and off welfare, and she'd rather stay off. She's worked for two years now as a program assistant at the East River Family Strengthening Collaborative, which counsels and shelters abused and neglected children. She's now moving back to Maryland and trying to save for a house: "It's hard being a single mom, but I made it." As Congress plans to revisit and reauthorize welfare reform this year, Ms. Cleveland says the work requirements and time limits are necessary. "Everything they're doing is good. A lot of people that I came through the program with only came because they had to or their benefits would get cut off." She was amazed to stand beside women in their late 20s and early 30s who had never worked, and she was the only one to quickly get a job. Ms. Cleveland met President Bush when he announced his new welfare plans at St. Luke's Church in Washington late last month, and the story she told him through tears and hugs is the kind of story the president and other reformers will tout as the real and enduring change coming out of the welfare reforms approved in 1996. Nearly 3 million families have left Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, leaving only 2 million on the rolls, the lowest figure since the early 1970s, when the program was called Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Low-income mothers have seen substantial increases in employment and earnings. Perhaps most surprising is the ongoing decline in child poverty, especially among black children. Liberals predicted that welfare reform would throw more than 1 million additional children into poverty, but some 2.3 million fewer children are defined as living in poverty today than there were when welfare reform was enacted. The poverty rate is even lower when it includes the Earned Income Tax Credit and non-cash benefits like food stamps and housing subsidies. But TeamBush is seeking to push the welfare-reform effort from its success in promoting work to new success in promoting two-parent families among the poor. The greatest unintended consequence of the "War on Poverty" was family breakdown. Overall, out-of-wedlock births rose from 8 percent of all births in 1965 to an astonishing 33 percent in 1994. Since welfare reform was enacted, the rate has flattened. Among blacks, the out-of-wedlock birth rate actually fell slightly (from 70 percent in 1994 to 69 percent in 1999). Between 1994 and 1999, the share of black children living with single mothers fell from 47 percent to 43 percent, while the share living with married couples rose from 35 percent to 39 percent. Democrats compare marriage promotion efforts to "punishing single mothers" with "shotgun weddings." (Bush staffers quickly respond to "punishing single moms" talk with their plan's call for tougher child-support enforcement on deadbeat dads.) Republicans counter that programs encouraging unmarried parents may be punishing the children, since children growing up without a married mother and father are about twice as likely to drop out of school, over 50 percent more likely to have a child themselves as a teenager, and over 50 percent more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. Patrick Fagan, a senior fellow in welfare studies at the Heritage Foundation, says current welfare eligibility rules in many states create a marriage penalty for poor couples who want to get married. "Forget about rewarding marriage, just stop penalizing it," he says. "Congress destroyed married life among the poor and decimated the inner-city culture." Even now, couples on welfare could lose up to a fourth of their income by getting married. That penalty doesn't apply when women leave the welfare rolls, which may explain the mildly improving marital trend. Under the Bush proposal, states would be required to describe their efforts to provide equitable treatment of two-parent married families, since welfare rules often discourage marriage when newly combined incomes send poor families above the income-eligibility limits. Currently, only 1 percent of welfare funds directed to states is devoted to marriage promotion. That's partially due to a lack of state experience in creating family formation programs. To shrink that knowledge gap, the administration's proposing a $100 million annual fund to conduct research and to provide technical assistance on programs promoting healthy marriages and discouraging out-of-wedlock births, as well as a $100 million matching grant program available to states that try new approaches. Unlike the last reforms, TeamBush would require the states to provide explicit descriptions of their programs, to establish numerical goals, and to provide an annual report on state achievement in marriage promotion. The administration signaled its emphasis on marriage promotion by sending out as a spokesman Wade Horn, assistant secretary for family support at the Department of Health and Human Services and a former president of the National Fatherhood Initiative. After he was nominated last year, Mr. Horn dropped his position that married couples on welfare should be favored for public housing over families led by single parents-saying it was politically unworkable-and suggested the government should attempt to find a position of neutrality (WORLD, June 23, 2001). Mr. Horn's nomination was actively opposed by the National Organization for Women, and NOW leader Kim Gandy is currently suggesting that no federal welfare funds go to the administration's "my way or the highway approach" to marriage promotion, since the money would be better spent on child care, health care, and transportation subsidies. Mr. Horn responds, "This is not about mandating marriages, trapping people in abusive relationships, or starting a federal dating service. It's a common-sense approach, that healthy marriages are good for kids." Mr. Horn also stressed the importance of educating young people about the value of marriage and teaching that "out-of-wedlock births are not good for them, for their kids, or their community." Pro-family groups are especially interested in the new welfare bill's proposals for increasing spending on abstinence education programs. Since the campaign, the president has pledged to match federal spending on birth control with federal spending on abstinence. The White House plan declares "the goal of federal policy should be to emphasize abstinence as the only certain way to avoid both unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases." Mr. Horn retorts to abstinence-education skeptics that abstinence has a 100 percent success rate every time it's tried. The trick is how to convince young people to try it. Republicans suspect that liberal groups may fight hardest on the provisions dear to social conservatives. On the central issues of requiring work and time limits on welfare, the success of reform has been so startling that Wendell Primus, who resigned from the Clinton administration to protest it, now suggests that it should be continued. None of the liberal interest groups is insisting on recreating an endless welfare entitlement, but they are complaining about the Bush plan's attempts to push states to increase the percentage of welfare recipients at work and increase the number of hours most are required to put in from 30 hours a week to a more real-world 40 hours a week. For conservatives, the goal of tougher work requirements is to promote family, not just work. Readily available subsidies from the state make marriage less attractive to single mothers. Deepak Bhargava, director of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, expressed the liberal line when he complained, "We're in the middle of a recession. Now is a strange time to be arguing we ought to toughen work requirements on poor families." Democrats will also push for more child-care funding as part of any plan to increase work requirements. But conservatives relish the chance to have a long, drawn-out debate on whether aid recipients should have to work the same hours most taxpayers work. And Mr. Horn noted to WORLD that even Bill Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers agreed that the economic boom didn't cause the drop in welfare caseloads. As to the effects of the 2001-2002 recession, the latest figures on the first nine months of 2001 show the national decline in welfare caseloads continuing. In addition to increasing the amount of weekly work expected of welfare recipients, the Bush plan raises the bar on the percentage of aid recipients who are expected to satisfy the full-time work requirements. The work-participation rate rose from 25 percent in 1997 to around 50 percent today, although one model state, Wisconsin (led by former Gov. Tommy Thompson, now the HHS Secretary), has spurred 73 percent of its recipients to meet the requirement. The Bush plan wants the states to aim for a 70 percent work-participation goal by 2007, which has made several of the governors worry if they can meet it. The White House is trying to give the governors more flexibility by allowing states to apply for waivers to enter into partnerships with private businesses, community groups, and faith-based organizations. Liberal groups like the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities suggest the governors have less flexibility since the White House still refuses to allow the states to provide welfare benefits to immigrants who've been in the country less than five years. But the Bush plan would repeal the Gingrich-era prohibition on food stamps for recent immigrants. The reform debate starts within a few weeks in the House Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.), chairman of its Human Resources subcommittee, told WORLD that most of welfare reform will come out of his panel, and that he's confident that the House can pass the Bush plan this spring, so that the Senate could pass its version by the August recess. But he's not making any predictions about what will happen on the other side of the Capitol. Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.) are introducing the Democratic alternative, modeled after a House bill introduced by Rep. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), but Republicans insist that the Cardin bill dramatically increases welfare spending even as caseloads plummet, does nothing to promote marriage, and undermines work requirements by allowing any kind of education or job training to count as work. A "New Democrat" bill sponsored by Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.), who both were governors during the welfare-reform era, is more pleasing to TeamBush, echoing the White House's pledge to increase the work-participation rate by 2007 and expressing some agreement on the need for more emphasis on involved fathers. Rep. Herger sees marriage promotion as the new frontier for the next five years of welfare reform, and dismisses all the talk about states not knowing how to do it, even if just a few states (most prominently Oklahoma) have really worked at it. "We could have said the same thing when the 1996 welfare bill was initiated-that we didn't know what was going to work at lowering poverty. But I think there's a great deal that can be done." TeamBush is confident that despite some congressional efforts to undo the tough love that's changing lives for so many poor Americans like Yolanda Cleveland, nothing succeeds politically like success.

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