The dramatic reduction in welfare dependency and child poverty that we have witnessed over the last ten years is remarkable; even more remarkable, perhaps, is a recently published book recounting the reform of federal policy, the most sweeping in decades, that led to these improvements. In providing a lively account of the personalities, policies, and politics that shaped the landmark welfare-reform legislation, Ron Haskins has produced an engaging primer on the complicated and arcane legislative process. In Work Over Welfare: The Inside Story of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law, the account of how a bill becomes a law receives a remarkably entertaining treatment, and the book should find an appreciative audience well beyond his fellow academics.
Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, spent 14 years on Capitol Hill as the Republicans’ resident expert on social welfare policy. As would be expected, he has a thorough command of profuse research findings and a detailed knowledge of the intricacies of scores of federal welfare programs. More remarkable is how he is able to make his specialized knowledge accessible and interesting to non-experts, a group that included the members of Congress who had to be instructed, inspired, and corralled in order to deliver “a truly radical policy.”
The Republican welfare reform bill that finally passed and was signed by President Clinton in 1996 overturned thirty years of failed national welfare policy that subsidized persistent poverty and rising rates of illegitimacy. Haskins’ detailed account of how reformers changed the terms of debate, marshaled their arguments, recruited allies, overcame obstacles, and withstood presidential vetoes and demagogic attacks in order to successfully challenge an entrenched welfare establishment has heroes and villains, humor and suspense. At odds in the high stakes battle were Republicans and Democrats, governors and Congress, Capitol Hill and the White House, Bob Dole and Bill Clinton. The chances of passing a controversial and complicated reform were slim.
Haskins reminds us that years of preparation preceded a 1994 GOP majority that was not only in a position to implement reform, but was also committed to a reform that would demand an end to an open-ended entitlement and would require work in exchange for welfare. Because Haskins was intimately involved in every stage of the reform, his readers are treated to an insider’s candid account of the contentious meetings behind closed doors and the careful choreography that played out in congressional hearings.
The bill ultimately passed Congress with large bipartisan majorities (328 to 101 in the House), but it frequently seemed a hopeless enterprise. Success has many fathers, and Haskins gives credit to a number of them; he acknowledges the indispensable intellectual groundwork done by conservative foundations and policy experts like Charles Murray and Robert Rector and liberals like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and he also gives credit to President Clinton, who was willing to buck his congressional allies and some of his own appointees in order to “end welfare as we know it.” The two champions of reform, though, who can most claim responsibility for the reform are Representative Clay Shaw and Senator Jim Talent — and here is another reminder of why the defeat of these talented and committed legislators this November was so regrettable.
Over the past ten years, welfare rolls have been cut by more than half. Today, a record number of single mothers are gainfully employed, and black child poverty is at an historic low. Ron Haskins deserves plenty of credit for the improved prospects of our nation’s poor; he also deserves praise for capturing so well the fascinating and important story of how meaningful welfare reform finally happened.
— Kate O’Beirne is the author of Women Who Make the World Worse: and How Their Radical Feminist Assault Is Ruining Our Schools, Families, Military, and Sports, now in paperback.