Welfare through Work; Reform Has Improved the Lives of many.(OPED)(POLITICS IN THE CITY)

Article excerpt


When Congress passed welfare reform in 1996, a deeply divided Clinton team grappled with whether to support the legislation. When it did, three administration officials quit in protest; many other Democrats groused about the president's decision. Rep. Charles Rangel summed up liberal frustration. "My president - he's a winner . . . and the kids are the losers."

Fast-forward five years and analyze the results. Welfare rolls dropped more than 50 percent since the early 1990s; poverty and child hunger declined; and more single mothers are employed with rising incomes. By nearly any measure, the 1996 welfare reform bill was one of the most successful pieces of social policy legislation in American history. Yet despite its impressive track record, Congress cannot muster the votes to reauthorize and build on the program, which technically expires in four days, at the end of the fiscal year. Why do bad things happen to good policies?

Welfare reform has been pummeled by the political equivalent of a perfect storm: cavernous and enduring conflicts among Democrats, cynicism in the media, and the GOP's inability to consistently articulate its alternative to the welfare state.

Although Mr. Clinton signed the legislation the third time it was sent to him, his party's support for welfare reform has always been tenuous. Democrats split down the middle when Congress passed the 1996 law, 98 voting for the bill and 98 voting against. Since passage of the Great Society, most liberals opposed the concept of work requirements as a precondition to receiving a welfare check. During the 1980s, the left considered "workfare" a reactionary idea. Even this year, when the House passed its version of welfare reform, most Democrats voted against the bill.

Democrats now embrace a new, yet equally liberal, approach: work, plus new Washington regulations - and lots of federal cash. Last week, Senate Democrats offered Republicans a deal - reauthorize current welfare programs in exchange for $3 billion in new federal spending for child-care programs. "That's a non-starter," one GOP leadership aide said. "Most around here believe the program can still function if it's not reauthorized as long as it's funded. We won't let the Democrats pass a bill that undoes many of the reforms we put in place in 1996."

The Congressional Research Service bolstered this view in an analysis arguing welfare reform programs could continue when the authorization expires as long as Congress provides funding. This undercuts the Democrats' leverage for more federal money, but it also hurts Republicans' chances to build on the successes of the 1996 act. …