Like the bike you bought after saving lawn-mowing money for a year, welfare reform was the prized trophy of the conservative governing philosophy. We believed that we'd found the vehicle of social mobility for poor Americans, once and for all. No one should live on taxpayer money without doing some work on their own, right? Everyone agrees, right?
Wrong. President Obama ran over our bicycle, issuing illegal waivers to welfare's work requirements and taking the wheels off the program. The fact is, we never won the welfare battle after all. Out of the 80 different federal welfare programs, the '96 welfare reform really only fixed one. A third of the U.S. population received benefits from one or more of these 80 programs in 2011. According to the Department of Agriculture, one program alone – food stamps – gave benefits to a record-breaking 47.7 million in the last month of 2012, benefits those millions didn't have to work to receive.
Rep. Paul Ryan recently said it's time to use the 1996 reform as a model to fix the rest of welfare. He's right, for at least five compelling reasons.
1. America's welfare programs are redundant and inefficient. As The Heritage Foundation's welfare expert Rachel Sheffield noted, there are at least 12 separate programs providing food aid, 12 funding social services, and 12 assisting education. Average benefits from all welfare programs are about $9,000 per recipient. If you converted those programs to cash, it would be more than five times the amount needed to raise every household above the poverty line. We should streamline redundant programs to save money while getting the same or better value.
2. Means-tested welfare programs are fiscally unsustainable. These cost nearly $1 trillion annually. By the end of the decade, welfare spending will rise from five percent to six percent of GDP. This means every taxpaying family would have to make, and then give up, over $100,000 in the next ten years – just to cover the cost of welfare spending.
Imagine this: If government spending were a pie, welfare would be a bigger slice than defense, education, or even social security. This isn't apple pie a la mode. It's poison-the-economy pie with a side of swamp-our-children-in-debt ice cream.
3. The welfare state encourages dependence instead of lifting people out of poverty. Poverty has actually increased with federal spending on anti-poverty programs. Adjusted for inflation, we've spent nearly $20 trillion total on “the war on poverty.” That's more than the combined price tag of all America's wars. Ever. From the American Revolution through Afghanistan, we've spent less than $7 trillion. These days, we spend 13 times what we spent on welfare in the 1960s. Guess what? In 1966, the share of the population living below the poverty threshold was 14.7%; by 2011, that share rose to 15.0%.
This spending gives people significant incentives to stay on welfare. According to the Senate Budget Committee, if you break down welfare spending per household in poverty, recipients are making $30/hour. That's higher than the $25/hour median income – certainly more than what I make per hour.
4. Welfare dependence creates behavioral poverty. Perhaps President Franklin D. Roosevelt said it best: “Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” To become comfortable relying on the work of others instead of your own work will change your character, and the character of the nation. Americans want to give everyone a helping hand, but hand-holding year after year, generation after generation, patronizes, corrodes, entraps. In the words of welfare policy experts Robert Rector and Jennifer Marshall writing in National Affairs:
Material poverty has been replaced by a far deeper “behavioral poverty” — a vicious cycle of unwed childbearing, social dysfunction, and welfare dependency in poor communities. Even as the welfare state has improved the material comfort of low-income Americans by transferring enormous financial resources to them, it has exacerbated these behavioral problems. The result has been the disintegration of the work ethic, family structure, and social fabric of large segments of the American population, which has in turn created a new dependency class.
Is this the America we want? It is not compassionate to leave a whole class of people in perpetual dependence. Behavioral poverty cuts off millions of citizens from a chance at American opportunity, destroying the virtues necessary to sustain oneself. My generation has seen the effects of behavioral poverty – in D.C., Detroit, or my hometown, Cleveland. Whole neighborhoods rot. To many, this cycle of dependence indicts the principles of American society as inherently unfair.
5. Work requirements promote individual responsibility and reduce poverty. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) work requirements slashed welfare caseloads by nearly 60 percent. Poverty among all single mothers fell 30 percent. About 3 million fewer children lived in poverty in 2003 than in 1995.
These statistics represent real people. LaShunda Hall, a TANF recipient and single parent of two children, testified before the House Committee on Education and The Workforce five years after welfare reform: “I stand as a positive example of those who have realized success by participating in this life-changing TANF funded program. Through TANF funding ... we have gone on to become productive employees of America’s workforce.”
Welfare reform succeeded primarily because of one policy: 30 to 40 percent of those receiving welfare benefits in each state must engage in 20 to 30 hours of “work activities” per week. These include unsubsidized or government-subsidized employment, community-service work, up to 12 months of vocational training, job searching (for up to six weeks), and high-school or GED education.
It succeeded because it was based on a sound understanding of human nature, that work builds character and character drives success. By engaging impoverished Americans in work, it gave millions the experience, skill, and character to rise to individual responsibility and out of poverty. These truths about human nature are the foundation of the American experience. We should apply them to the menagerie of government programs consuming both our budget and our poor.
Welfare reform was a victory for the conservative movement, but not a permanent one. Its waxing and waning proves that today's 80 welfare programs are a serious challenge, but not a lost cause. In T.S. Eliot's words, “there is no such thing as a lost cause, because there is no such thing as a gained cause.” The lesson of welfare reform should be that those committed to realizing America's opportunity for all must renew their commitment in public policy again and again. It's a cause worth working for.