Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Welfare Reform Ten Years Later

Ten years ago today, President Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform bill. Here is Robert Samuelson summarizing the results:

Welfare caseloads have plunged. From August 1996 to June 2005, the number of people on welfare dropped from 12.2 million to 4.5 million. About 60 percent of mothers who left welfare got work. Their incomes generally rose. Many qualified for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, which subsidizes low-income workers. Finally, there were intangible benefits: work connections, self-respect.

One lesson is that what people do for themselves often overshadows what government does for them. Since 1991, for example, the teen birthrate has dropped by a third. The mothers least capable of supporting children have had fewer of them. Welfare reform didn't single handedly cause this. But it reinforced a broader shift in the social climate—one emphasizing personal responsibility over victimhood....

So: we've made a stubborn problem a bit more manageable. It's pragmatic progress, not a panacea. Why can't we do the same for other pressing problems—energy, immigration, retirement spending (Social Security, Medicare)? Here, welfare reform's political lessons apply.

One is the need to overcome a bias against change. We underestimate people's ability to adapt. In 1995, one think tank forecast that the bill would throw 1 million more children into poverty. If Congress had listened, little would have happened. Today we could gradually raise Social Security and Medicare eligibility ages without causing a social catastrophe.

The 1996 bill was one of President Clinton's most significant accomplishments.