Five years after Bill Clinton capitulated to Republican demands and signed on to watershed welfare-reform legislation, policy wonks, pro-family activists and politicians waging war on the welfare state have reason to celebrate as millions of former welfare recipients have joined the workforce. Now, as the United States begins to pull out of the Clinton late-term recession, a new debate is raging about the next phase of welfare reform: whether the federal government should provide funds for programs that shore up marriage and the two-parent family.
When welfare reform comes up for renewal this spring, a Bush-administration-backed proposal will earmark funds for pro-family and pro-marriage initiatives, including marriage counseling for parents of out-of-wedlock babies and couples facing divorce. The pro-marriage forces include more than 52 lawmakers from several states, as well as think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and grass-roots alliances including the American Family Coalition.
Opposition is gathering for the fight. The Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) has issued a statement condemning the proposals, announcing: "IWPR has not found any scientific research to support the claim that programs and policies promoting marriage actually reduce poverty." IWPR President Heidi Hartmann declares: "We should be fostering strong economic policies that make women self-sufficient instead of trying to regulate the social makeup of women's lives."
When Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) replaced the failed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program in 1996, its backers said the goals were threefold: to reduce dependence and increase employment; to reduce child poverty; and to reduce illegitimacy and strengthen marriage.
Certain groups predictably were apoplectic. Even reformist Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) called the new welfare law "the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction." He later said, "Those involved will take this disgrace to their graves."
The Urban Institute issued a report predicting the new law would push more than 3 million people, including children, into poverty.
Peter Edelman, the assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under Clinton, resigned in protest. He wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that the new law would do "serious injury to American children." Edelman predicted there would be "more malnutrition and more crime, increased infant mortality and increased drug and alcohol abuse. There will be increased family violence and abuse against children and women."
That didn't happen. Instead welfare reform resulted in a series of successes beyond the hopes of many and despite the dire predictions of some. Fewer children live in poverty today than in 1996, and the reduction of poverty has been greatest for black children. The poverty rate of single mothers is at the lowest point in U.S. history, and AFDC/TANF caseloads have been cut nearly in half. Employment has increased, and the growth of out-of-wedlock births has been slowed dramatically.
According to the Heritage Foundation, instead of welfare reform pushing 2.6 million people deeper into poverty, there actually were 4.2 million fewer people living in poverty by 1999. When the earned-income tax credit and other non-cash benefits such as food stamps and public housing are counted, the poverty rate is even lower: 8.8 percent, down from 10.2 percent in 1996.
The debate today involves the third, largely neglected, goal of welfare reform, says Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. According to Rector, "despite nearly $100 billion in TANF spending during the last five years, the states have spent virtually nothing on specific pro-marriage programs." Lawmakers from Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Virginia and Wisconsin are urging Congress to designate a small portion of TANF funds (10 percent) for marriage education, responsible-fatherhood programs and community support of marriage. …