Campaign 2000 the Welfare Reform Debate That Wasn't

Article excerpt

The emergence of an uneasy consensus on welfare reform is one of the underreported developments of last fall's election campaign. Readers of news reports of that campaign may have concluded that the country was so hopelessly divided on almost everything that it could not possibly come together. Yet, remarkably, on the biggest social initiative of the past 10 years or even longer, there was no debate last fall between Al Gore and George Bush.

One could easily imagine such a debate, with Gore favoring scaling back some of what he might see as more draconian aspects of welfare reform and Bush seconding a suggestion made last year by House Republicans to begin scaling back some work supports, particularly the earned income tax credit. But Gore chose not to make that argument, and Bush pointedly disagreed with the House Republicans' suggestion. Beyond that, there wasn't much discussion about welfare reform. I think that silence is worth noting.

When I first got involved in welfare reform in the House of Representatives back in the 1980s, precious few Republicans were involved at all in the issues of poverty and welfare. Most of the debate on the conservative side had been basically bumper-sticker quality--with much talk about welfare queens and pouring money down a rat hole. The questions for conservatives at that time were how to get people off the welfare rolls and how to cut spending and save money. In response, Democrats on the left defended the existing system and tried to counter the conservative bumper stickers.

Both parties have changed quite a bit since then, but more has changed on the Republican side. The debate began to become meaningful with the emergence of a Republican group with a serious interest in reducing poverty, not just ill reducing welfare spending. Today a lot of Republicans and conservatives are genuinely interested in reducing poverty and honestly believe that welfare reform can be for the betterment of poor people and children.

What will happen next in welfare reform? That we have gone through a presidential political campaign without the parties' debating this issue tells me that major change in welfare is not forthcoming. That doesn't mean there won't be a lot of debate when the 1996 law comes up for reauthorization in 2002. …