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Welfare Reform's Unprecedented Success

By Bill Archer
Monday, August 10, 1998; Page A17


Almost two years after the enactment of the historic Welfare Reform Law of 1996, theories abound as to why welfare rolls have dropped to historically low levels. Big-government types and even the President's Council of Economic Advisers quickly point to the economy as the best explanation.

But while the economy affects welfare caseloads, new studies show that an economic expansion alone does not drive welfare rolls down. The real reason for the 37 percent drop in rolls is that fundamental changes in the welfare system were passed by Congress and the states beginning in 1994. Changing values and expectations, not a bull market, are moving former welfare recipients to work.

The Welfare Reform Law crafted by the Republican Congress is the most significant change in American social policy in a generation. In writing the bill, our guiding principle was to fight poverty by helping families escape the dead end of welfare dependency. Thus, we required able-bodied adults to work, ended the individual entitlement to cash welfare, limited cash assistance to five years and imposed penalties on recipients refusing to comply.

The latest statistics show that in all but one state, welfare caseloads have dropped dramatically. Idaho's dropped an astonishing 76 percent and Wyoming's 72 percent. Other states have posted equally impressive declines.

It wasn't just our bill that made the difference, though. Welfare rolls started falling in the summer of 1994. By that time, President Bush already had waived federal rules and red tape so some states could try their own reforms. President Clinton continued this policy, albeit more slowly. Then the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill was enacted.

The resulting drop in welfare rolls is without precedent. Historically, welfare rolls haven't declined often, even during economic expansions. Moreover, the greatest decline in any period prior to our new law was about 7 percent. Compare this with the current 37 percent decline in rolls, and the magnitude of our success begins to emerge. More important is that many former recipients now are working and becoming self-sufficient, not dependent on a government check, making them better role models for their children.

Regrettably, some cynics still contend that the decline in welfare payments has come about only because "times are good" and warn that an economic downturn would reverse the success of welfare reform. But they are wrong.

Consider what happened during the economic boom of the 1980s -- perhaps the greatest in our history. Although the 1980s expansion created 20 million net new jobs, welfare rolls actually increased by nearly half a million.

Now consider the current economic expansion, which has created 12 million new jobs since 1991, a little more than half the number of jobs created during the '80s expansion. The first half of this decade tracks the '80s expansion; as the economy grew and added jobs, welfare rolls also grew. Not until the summer of 1994, when half the states required welfare recipients to work, did the rolls start to decline. And they haven't stopped declining.

The real reason for the historic decline is that we finally said welfare recipients have to work and that work was preferable to getting a government check. We said Americans and their elected representatives expect able-bodied adults to support themselves and their families. And after years of rhetoric, Congress passed laws with teeth, and states changed the way welfare offices do business.

The real story here is that the culture of welfare has changed. A recent General Accounting Office report showing that more welfare beneficiaries are working noted: "Welfare offices are generally being transformed into job placement centers, and in some instances applicants are expected to engage in job search activities as soon as they apply for assistance."

Our new law represents the boldest change the nation ever has made in one of its major social programs. And as more welfare beneficiaries go back to work, I'm confident that more low-income children and families, as well as taxpayers, will continue to be better off than they were during the bad old days of welfare dependency.

The writer, a Republican representative from Texas, chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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