Academic journal article Policy Review

The Shocking Success of Welfare Reform

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Shocking Success of Welfare Reform

Article excerpt

Near the end of Losing Ground, his seminal 1984 book on poverty and welfare policy, Charles Murray lamented that "the political systemAEs tolerance for [welfare] reform is extremely limited. . . . The number of aepolitically feasibleAE changes that would make much difference is approximately zero."

What a difference a decade makes.

Nationwide the number of welfare cases has fallen by more than a quarter since the peak of March 1994, and over the last 18 months the fall in the caseload has accelerated to about 1 percent per month as more state welfare-reform plans take hold. It is important to keep in mind that welfare rolls swelled rapidly during the early 1990s, so many states are just now returning to the level before the caseload surged. But reductions in the early reform states such as Wisconsin, where the caseload has fallen by 55 percent since 1993, show that even further progress is possible. (See Robert Rector, "WisconsinAEs Welfare Miracle," Policy Review, March--April 1997.)

Over the past 18 months, several other states with large caseloads have begun to emerge as welfare-reform success stories, including Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida (see table). The magnitude and speed of the caseload reduction in these leading states has exceeded the expectations of even the most optimistic reformers.

Some skeptics suggest that the booming U.S. economy and low unemployment are responsible for the shrinking welfare caseload, but they forget that the economic boom of the 1980s barely dented the welfare rolls. Clearly something else is going on.

The Sine Qua Non

These impressive results are being achieved for one big reason and a lot of small ones. The big reason is that the presumption of welfare as an entitlement, with the implicit (and often explicit) disdain for the work ethic, has been reversed. Moreover, welfare reform is revitalizing faith-based and other private voluntary organizations whose role in fighting poverty had been eclipsed by the expansion of the welfare entitlement system in the 1960s.

The small reasons are the various individual features of the state reform plans themselves. Above all, the most successful state reform programs have two features in common: a serious commitment to immediate work or real job training, and a person in charge of the program with a serious commitment to transforming welfare. This leadership from the top has been crucial to every successful effort.

WisconsinAEs team effort began with Governor Tommy Thompson; other key members of this effort include Jason Turner and Jean Rogers (the former and current administrators of WisconsinAEs program, respectively). In Mississippi, it was Larry Temple, the director of the Human Services Department (now head of the welfare program in Texas); in Oregon, Adult and Family Services Director Sandra Hoback (with strong private sector help from the American Institute for Full Employment, based in Klamath Falls, Oregon); in Tennessee, it was Leonard Bradley, the policy adviser to Governor Don Sundquist who helped design TennesseeAEs program, and Linda Rudolph, the commissioner of the Department of Human Services, which implemented the plan. And there are hundreds more unsung individuals at lower levels of the system who will emerge as heroes of welfare reform in the fullness of time.

The general political climate in the 1990s of "ending welfare as we know it" has prompted many able-bodied recipients to get off welfare rolls and onto payrolls since before welfare reform passed Congress last year. That may explain why some studies appear to find little overall statistical correlation between caseload reductions and particular features of state reform plans. Many states have probably reaped an easy windfall from the early reform efforts of trailblazers such as Wisconsin.

The changing nomenclature of the social-service industry reflects the emphasis on work and personal responsibility that has been central to the welfare-reform debate. …

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