Politics & Policy

Counterfeit Compassion

Republicans offer real help to the poor, and Democrats try to shut them down.

While no one issued a press release, welfare reform is probably dead this Congress–another legislative pelt nailed to the thick wooden door of Democratic obstructionism. And while probing the dynamics of legislative gridlock in the U.S Senate is certainly not a new subject, the stymieing of welfare reform–and the reasons why it’s been derailed–deserve closer examination.

#ad#Despite growing and substantial evidence that the 1996 welfare-reform legislation is the most successful social-policy change in generations, liberals in Congress appear stuck in a time warp, bludgeoning efforts to build on its successes with the same discredited paradigm the law changed eight years ago.

Welfare reform’s track record is astounding: The new policy argued for cash payments to the poor, without any obligation to work or seek training; fostered government dependency; undercut marriage; and promoted illegitimacy. This counterfeit compassion created a welfare culture, trapping women and children on a treadmill of false hopes with no escape.

Since 1996, according to the Heritage Foundation, welfare rolls have been cut in half, the employment rate of disadvantaged single mothers has nearly doubled, and poverty rates for blacks and children of single mothers are now at their lowest points in U.S. history. All this despite the whining Cassandras on the left, who warn that reform would force millions into poverty.

What has welfare reform taught us? First, merely throwing money at the problem is counterfeit compassion. Second, a growing economy and a robust jobs environment can significantly help welfare recipients find meaningful employment. Third, encouraging marriage and lowering illegitimacy are critical variables in ending welfare dependency and lowering poverty levels.

Ironically, these three secrets of success are the basis for Democrats’ opposition. Despite efforts by Republicans to pass legislation, liberals in the Senate killed the reauthorization legislation by objecting to consideration of a final vote, and by blocking going to “conference” with the House–historically a routine motion, and one that Democrats have now added to their quiver of obstructionist weapons.

Leveraging their minority rights, Senate Democrats apparently want to obstruct bicameralism too. Liberals in the Senate desire a guaranteed outcome, not a negotiation with the House. They want more federal spending, less state flexibility, more job-constricting costs on small business, and less emphasis on encouraging marriage.

The House passed a five-year welfare-reform bill last year, improving the existing program by adding greater state flexibility on the use of federal funds, increased emphasis on job training, an additional $2 billion in child care, and President Bush’s healthy-marriage initiatives–a $300 million annual program aimed at providing education, counseling, and research about the connections between healthy marriages and reduced poverty.

Yet building on past success was no match for Democratic obstructionists. When the Senate debated the legislation about two months ago, Republicans tried to compromise. They added $6 billion in child-care funding, three times the level included in the House bill. They also agreed to allow an up or down vote on increasing the minimum wage. Marriage incentives were watered down. Despite these concessions, Democrats voted to continue a filibuster and to oppose efforts to move to a conference committee to resolve differences with the House.

The original 1996 welfare-reform bill expired in October of 2002. Since then Congress has passed six short-term extensions of existing law (the current extension expires on June 30, 2004). Lawmakers will likely continue to approve short-term extensions of the existing program, but this also means the improvements included in the longer-term reauthorization passed by the House and supported by the White House are on permanent hold–victims of Democrats’ reluctance to give up on the failed policies of the past.

What’s behind the Democrats’ stall tactics? First, building on the success of welfare reform is not in their interest. Liberal special-interest groups like the National Organization for Women and the Children’s Defense Fund loathe the idea that their form of compassion has been discredited. These groups and others like them have been pleading with Senate Democrats to oppose further conservative reforms. “The original reforms were bad enough for these groups,” a Republican leadership aide told me. “Building on them or making them apply more broadly is totally out of the question from their perspective.”

Second, these groups are also petrified that welfare reform’s success could spread to other programs like public housing and food stamps. After all, demonstrating a successful pathway out of poverty might undermine their monopoly on compassion.

Third, many liberals hate the president’s marriage initiative. As Sharon Lerner opined in the Village Voice, these programs are problematic because they “endorse only the classic union of man and wife, not stable non-matrimonial relationships or same-sex bonds.” Imagine that!

Finally, liberal Democrats in the Senate also want to maintain their own monopoly on compassion. What would Senator Kennedy bluster if the public discovered that Republicans want to help people too? Passing another phase of welfare-reform improvements loosens the Democrats’ grip on the compassion agenda.

Senate Democrats’ behavior on this issue is cynicism on steroids. Unfortunately most Republicans are too nice and well mannered to express the kind of outrage necessary to grab the public’s attention–Democrats would stage sit-ins, hunger strikes, and marches on the Capitol if the situation were reversed. Moreover, most in the media tend to agree with the Democrats. And while no one will send the poor a press release, they could still benefit from reconsidering who’s really on their side.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of policy and research at the Dutko Group Companies in Washington, D.C., and holds a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Illinois-Chicago.

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