Picking Up Where ’96 Welfare Reform Left Off

by Katherine Bradley

Today, Reps. Jim Jordan (R., Ohio), Tim Scott (R., S.C.), and Scott Garrett (R., N.J.) will introduce the Welfare Reform Act of 2011, a bill that would do much more than rein in exploding federal welfare spending. It also seeks to free millions of families, currently trapped in the welfare system, from a debilitating dependence on government.

The Jordan-Scott-Garrett legislation is a bold step forward. Adopting several major proposals by my Heritage Foundation colleague, Robert Rector, the bill would apply fiscal discipline to dozens of means-tested welfare programs where spending has skyrocketed since President Obama took office.

The legislation also would ease able-bodied recipients of government assistance off the welfare rolls and into jobs — the signature accomplishment of the limited 1996 reforms. The fastest way out of poverty, as the saying goes, is a job.

Or as the Republican Study Committee, of which Jordan is chairman, puts it in a summary of his bill: “Conservatives believe that the answer to poverty is work, higher earnings and marriage.”

The welfare-reform bill aims to encourage personal responsibility while reversing the 40 percent jump in spending among the 70-plus federal welfare programs during the first two years of the Obama administration, primarily by:

— Requiring the president’s annual budget to detail total current and future welfare spending, as well as estimate state contributions to federal programs.

— Capping total welfare spending at 2007 levels plus inflation once the recession ends.

— Adding work requirements to the food-stamps program, so that the able-bodied must seek employment and job training if they are to continue receiving the assistance.

Spending on the food-stamps program alone has more than doubled since 2008. Under Obama’s 2012 budget proposal, it would reach $80 billion and 40 million recipients — with more growth to come.

If Congress doesn’t slow this runaway train, federal and state welfare spending will total $10.3 trillion over the next decade. Our government is broke and heavily in debt. We can’t afford the accelerated growth in the welfare state that Obama has set in motion, especially considering these programs aren’t an efficient, lasting way to lift individuals out of poverty.

The welfare reform bill would cap overall — or aggregate — welfare spending at the rate of inflation once the recession subsides (defined as an unemployment rate of 6.5 percent or less). Savings are estimated to exceed $1.4 trillion over ten years.

But although saving taxpayers’ money is critical, even more important are the lives of the Americans who receive these benefits. Most have spent years on welfare with little chance of leaving. The average stay on food stamps is eight years, according to one report. And despite the fact that welfare costs are 13 times higher than in the 1960s, when the War on Poverty began, the poverty rate remains virtually unchanged.

The goal should be to move welfare recipients out of poverty and dependence, and into jobs and independence. The Jordan-Scott-Garrett bill would do this by adding the same kind of work requirements that in 1996 transformed the government’s largest cash-assistance program.

Welfare rolls shrunk by 60 percent as a result of reforms to one major program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, in policy changes first proposed to President Clinton and Congress by Rector and Heritage.

We could achieve similar success in the years ahead by implementing work requirements not only for food stamps but for public housing assistance, another of the larger welfare programs.

The Welfare Reform Act of 2011 would revive the vision of the 1996 reform initiative, picking up where it left off. For the first time in 15 years, lawmakers have a real opportunity to lessen dependence on government and improve the lives of millions of Americans.

Katherine Bradley is a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society and oversaw the nation’s largest cash-assistance program during the George W. Bush administration. She is co-author, with Robert Rector, of the 2010 research paper “Confronting the Unsustainable Growth of Welfare Entitlements.”

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