The Brookings Institution announced yesterday that, nine years after the government redefined the welfare system, the Washington think tank is ending its examination of welfare reform in favor of a new research center that will more broadly explore the circumstances of children and families.
The shift reflects a widespread view that the 1996 law, which required most adults on welfare to get a job and placed limits on cash assistance, has spawned a new generation of social concerns regarding the nation's low-income families. As a result of the law, the number of people on welfare has plummeted, and many welfare mothers have gotten jobs, but the changes have not lifted most of these families into the middle class.
"You have too many people who are in low-wage jobs, who are still struggling. That is a huge challenge," said Isabel V. Sawhill, a Brookings vice president, who will co-direct the Center on Children and Families with Ron Haskins, a Brookings senior fellow who helped write the 1996 welfare law and later worked on welfare issues in the Bush White House. "Welfare reform could be a Pyrrhic victory," Sawhill said. "It's very hard to move up."
The center is intended to focus on several themes. Researchers will evaluate policies, such as the earned-income tax credit created during the Clinton era, that are intended to help low-income working families improve their financial well-being.
Researchers also will look at whether public investments in children -- including spending on early childhood education -- can help them move up the socioeconomic ladder by the time they are adults. To inaugurate the center, Brookings held a forum yesterday afternoon on the role of preschool, especially for poor and minority children.
In addition, the center will explore ways to increase the proportion of children who grow up with parents who are married, including by trying to continue recent decreases in teenage pregnancies. The center will work to ensure that public programs for children and low-income families do not get crowded out in an inhospitable fiscal climate, as the government faces long-term budget deficits and the aging baby-boom generation will soon place vast pressures on spending for health care and retirement benefits for the elderly.
"The direction we are headed in is making benefits [for the disadvantaged] more conditional on people helping themselves," Sawhill said. "But government needs to uphold its side of that bargain, as well, which is: If you work, you shouldn't be poor."