AT THE CROSSROADS: THE WELFARE REFORM LAW OF 1996
The welfare system limped into the 1990s, staggering under the weight of nearly universal disfavor. Critics cited a litany of statistics and disturbing trends—including rising AFDC rolls, mounting program costs, and escalating rates of illegitimacy—in efforts to prove that the system was broken. The incremental reforms of the previous decades, including the most recent federal welfare legislation, the Family Support Act of 1988, appeared ineffective in the face of such a crisis of legitimacy. The status quo was nearly without defenders. Even many liberal Democrats cheered candidate Bill Clinton’s 1992 promise to “end welfare as we know it.” The question facing policy makers was no longer whether to undertake an ambitious reform of the welfare system, but rather precisely how to go about a dramatic restructuring of U.S. welfare policy.
The writings of new critics of AFDC had supplied the intellectual underpinnings for drastic versions of welfare overhaul. During the Reagan years figures such as Charles Murray, Lawrence Mead, and George Gilder had risen to prominence in the world of think tanks and academia by proposing bold new courses for social policy. However, the actual agents of welfare reform turned out to be the new Republican congressional majority elected in November 1994 on the strength of its “Contract with America.” This campaign document included a plank (number three on its list of ten agenda items) titled “The Personal Responsibility Act.” To keep their promises on welfare, the new majority (under its leader, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich) speedily introduced a welfare reform proposal into the opening session of the 104th Congress as bill HR 4 in January 1995. This plan of the Republican House leadership quickly eclipsed a number of rival bills, including Clinton’s own long-delayed proposal, one that had languished in Congress since June 1994, even while he enjoyed a Democratic majority in both houses. The original version of HR 4 passed the House within Gingrich’s