Ronald Reagan famously quipped that Washington had launched a war on poverty and poverty had won. By the early 1990s, over $5 trillion had been spent on welfare programs, and annual outlays on those programs had grown larger even than the defense budget. Swelling welfare rolls, chronic dependency, and rising illegitimacy rates accompanied this spending surge — until a Republican congressional majority came along. With next week marking the tenth anniversary of the GOP welfare reform, now is a good time to reflect on the most successful transformation of social policy in 50 years.
President Clinton vetoed conservative welfare reform twice before Republican resolve finally secured his signature on legislation that held cash welfare to a five-year limit and imposed work requirements on its recipients. Welfare was no longer to be an automatic handout that destructively subsidized unemployment and non-marriage. The liberal “compassion” that had imposed social decay on generation after generation of the poorest Americans was to be replaced with a system that encouraged self-sufficiency and responsibility. The Republicans’ stated goals were to reduce dependency, child poverty, and illegitimacy, and to increase employment. A decade later, these ambitious goals have been met.
Since 1996, welfare rolls have been cut by almost 60 percent; 1.6 million fewer children live in poverty; the formerly persistent and rapid growth in illegitimacy rates has ended; and more single mothers are employed than ever before. States with the strictest work programs have experienced reductions of up to 80 percent in their welfare caseloads. The largest decrease in poverty has been among black children: By 2001, black child poverty was at its lowest level in history. Beginning in 1965, the rate of out-of-wedlock births — then 7.7 percent — grew by about 1 percent a year, rising to 32.2 percent in 1995. By contrast, the rate of increase in recent years has been a fraction of the former growth, and consequently about 1.5 million fewer children have been born out of wedlock than otherwise would have been. And the largest decline in dependency has been among the most disadvantaged single mothers: Employment of never-married mothers has increased by nearly 50 percent, and among the youngest of them (ages 18 to 24) it has almost doubled.
While President Reagan laid the groundwork for this historic boost to the well-being of the poor, it took courageous and committed Republicans in Congress to see it through. In the House, its most important advocates were Clay Shaw and Jim Talent (who has since moved to the Capitol’s Senate wing). Senate efforts were led by Rick Santorum, Lauch Faircloth, and Phil Gramm. Together, they triumphed over the demagogic defenders of the welfare state whose hysterical claims have now been thoroughly debunked. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan labeled welfare reform “the most brutal act of social policy we have known since Reconstruction.” Marian Wright Edelman claimed that millions of children would be impoverished. Her husband Peter, assistant secretary of Health and Human services in the Clinton administration, resigned his post in protest and predicted that reform would increase malnutrition, crime, and family violence.
Armed with reason and the strength of their convictions, conservatives took on those false claims — and the powerful coalition of liberal advocacy groups, academics, bureaucrats, media panjandrums, and church leaders who clung so tenaciously to the status quo. In doing so, they proved themselves to be the true champions of the poor.