It is official: The reform of the welfare system is a great triumph of social policy -- so great, indeed, as to restore some legitimacy to the whole concept of large-scale social policy.
When the 1996 law ending welfare as an entitlement was under consideration, the Department of Health and Human Services and the nongovernmental Urban Institute predicted that the proposed reform would push more than a million children into poverty. Critics warned of social catastrophe. This week, after studying the data for 1998, HHS and the Urban Institute have returned their verdicts: The pessimists were wrong. Welfare reform did not give rise to catastrophe. It did not fling a million dependent children into the streets; it did rescue from the grinding tyranny of the dole millions of dependent adults.
The principal aim of the 1996 law was to require the states to move adults off the welfare rolls and into work. In 1998 the states were obliged to show that 30 percent of adult welfare recipients were working at least 20 hours per week. The actual results, released this week by HHS: On average, 35 percent were working. In some states more than 55 percent of welfare recipients were working at least half-time.
The Urban Institute also released a report this week. Studying women who left welfare between 1995 and 1997, the institute found that a majority -- 60 percent -- were employed at the time they were interviewed. And, as President Clinton justifiably boasted Tuesday, the welfare rolls have been cut in half since 1993.
The first question about welfare reform's success is: Why? Recall that only a decade ago, the welfare system seemed frozen utterly and forever. In the media-warped public discussion, the politics of welfare were also locked in place, with liberal Democratic humanists protecting women and children from cruel Reaganite ketchup-as-vegetable-heads. How did we ever get out of this great dismal swamp?
The first answer is political. Here is one of those rare happy occasions when everyone takes credit and everyone deserves credit.
Governors -- Republicans mostly, but some Democrats too -- led reform well in advance of the administration and Congress, and they get credit for forcing and driving the issue -- and, in many states, for implementing reform so aggressively and creatively as to outstrip the law's requirements.
Newt Gingrich and his revolutionary Republican Congress of 1994 get credit for drafting three welfare reform bills, sticking with the cause through two Clinton vetoes, and holding the president's feet to an election-year fire to win enactment the third time out.
Bill Clinton gets credit for making the governors' crusade a national promise, with his 1992 campaign pledge to "end welfare as we know it," and for keeping that pledge. It is perhaps true that he kept it reluctantly, but he kept it, and more. Clinton worked to undo some of the more Draconian and underthought elements of the law, and to strongly support the reworked version. In so doing, as a Democratic president, Clinton legitimized the reform; he did something crucial that no Republican could have done and no other Democrat had ever dared to do.
The second answer to the question of why is one of economics, and one of considerable debate. Some -- Clinton, for one -- hold that the 1996 law is responsible for almost all of the reform's success. Others believe the fantastic economy largely did the job. Isabel Sawhill, a policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, is probably right to figure that the economy accounted for half the gain and the other half was due to policy changes (including the 1996 bill, the increase in the earned income tax credit, improvements in child care for the poor and the increase in the minimum wage).
Sawhill's analysis raises a last, critical point: Welfare reform's success is fledgling and fragile. As the Urban Institute's study shows, many of the women who have left welfare are barely making it. A recession of any length could threaten much of what has been accomplished.
What this suggests is that we must plan for a recession, and to defeat a recession. Incredibly, House Speaker Dennis Hastert thinks differently. The states have been so successful at getting people off welfare that at least $4 billion in unclaimed welfare block grants have piled up in Treasury accounts. The states have been wisely content to leave the money there for now, as rainy-day cushions against recession's ability to undo the hard-won gains upon which millions of reclaimed lives depend.
Hastert has proposed that Congress glom the cash instead, and spend it on something else. It would be interesting to know what the speaker thinks is more important than the rescue of what was long thought to be a permanent underclass.
Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal.