Welfare Reform as I Knew It: When Bad Things Happen to Good Policies

By Ellwood, David T. | The American Prospect, May-June 1996 | Go to article overview

Welfare Reform as I Knew It: When Bad Things Happen to Good Policies


Ellwood, David T., The American Prospect


Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a friend of some years, was the first to sound the warning. When I met with him shortly after arriving in Washington in February of 1993, he said, "So you've come to do welfare reform. . . . I'll look forward to reading your book about why it failed this time." Well, Senator, consider this the first installment.

In May 1994, a Times-Mirror poll asked the following question:

One proposal currently being discussed to reform welfare would

require all able-bodied welfare recipients, including women with

pre-school children, to go to school for two years to learn a skill while

receiving benefits. After that, they would be required to either get a job

or take a job the government would give them and their welfare benefits

would be discontinued. Child care would be provided for the children of

working mothers. Do you favor or oppose this proposal?

Ninety-one percent said they favored such an approach. The Times-Mirror question captured very closely the basics of the Clinton welfare reform plan. Yet in spite of such apparent overwhelming public support, nothing like this plan will become law before the 1996 election. Indeed, it may never happen at the federal level, which raises an obvious question: Why did the Clinton welfare reform plan fail? And what does this failure tell us about the Clinton presidency, congressional politics, and democratic institutions more broadly? As an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), I was closely involved in the development of welfare reform. Along with Mary Jo Bane, also an assistant secretary, and Bruce Reed, a White House adviser, I co-chaired President Clinton's working group on welfare reform and was one of the people who drafted the plan. I had devoted my life to studying poverty and welfare, and was flattered during the 1992 campaign when Bill Clinton had cited my work as an influence on his ideas. When the offer came for me to go to Washington and help to craft real welfare reform, I was thrilled.

THE CLINTON REFORM STRATEGY

Those of us who put together the policy started with a particular analysis of poverty and welfare. First, low-income working families get a particularly bad deal today. Many workers, especially those with less than a college degree, have seen their wages drop, and they often receive little or no health coverage and little help with child care or other costs. The deteriorating living standards of working families pose an enormous challenge if we genuinely want people to move off welfare and be able to live decently.

Second, the welfare system must be transformed. Everyone seems to agree that welfare should be "a hand up, not a handout." Yet welfare administration is mostly about eligibility and benefit determination--check writing. The welfare system sends the message in a myriad of ways that traditional employment is foolish. If we are serious about work and opportunity, we need to change the whole culture of welfare offices. From the moment someone walks through the door, every signal ought to be that work is the ultimate goal and expectation.

Next, even when parents live apart, both of them ought to have the responsibility and opportunity to nurture and provide for their children. Based on surveys of absent fathers, Elaine Sorenson of the Urban Institute estimates that more than $48 billion for children could be generated every year by a system of child support that found every absent parent and collected money according to the simple formula now in use in Wisconsin. Current collections are just $14 billion.

Finally, we need to reduce the large number of children born to unwed mothers, especially teen mothers. Child poverty will always be a problem if we fail to signal to prospective parents that they should not have children until they are prepared to nurture and provide for them. …

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