Economy & Business

20 Years after Welfare Reform, Conservatives Should Build on Its Success to Address Poverty

Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Izanbar/Dreamstime)
We can and must do more to expand economic opportunities for America’s poor.

At the height of one of the strongest governing majorities Democrats have ever held, President Lyndon Johnson famously declared a “war on poverty.” What followed was sweeping legislation to fight this battle with big government’s bluntest instrument: open-ended cash benefits to the poor, which would have consequences for decades to come.

Family breakdown, extended joblessness, and dependency that trapped generations of people in poverty are all problems that, although they did not begin with Johnson’s Great Society programs, took much deeper root in America during the decades that followed.

But the arc of history does not have to bend toward big government. Conservative champions of welfare reform achieved success in the 1990s by making the case to the American people that government handouts were doing little to lift the poor out of poverty. The passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) on this day 20 years ago represented a belated acknowledgement that the liberal War on Poverty had failed.

This bipartisan bill, which ended permanent benefits in favor of a more pro-work Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, has yielded impressive results: The national welfare caseload was cut in half, millions of welfare recipients began working, and child poverty was significantly reduced. But there are many challenges that must still be overcome. PRWORA fixed only some of the federal government’s many welfare programs, and the Obama administration has since watered down the law’s successes by allowing states to opt out of work requirements for welfare recipients. Our sprawling welfare state is blind to the unique challenges each state faces, and it pushes families into traps of dependency instead of encouraging localized solutions to poverty that differs dramatically from state to state, and even county to county.

The liberal vision for addressing poverty has not only grown old and stale; it has failed. After more than 50 years and $16 trillion dollars, the official poverty rate remains the same. And where liberals see the world of individual and state — that individual needs must be met by an ever-expanding, top-down government — conservatives have the opportunity to promote a vision of society that embraces community-driven, grassroots solutions.

We have seen the fruits of an approach to welfare that puts work first. We must now apply this principle through federalism, empowering problem-solvers that are closest to the ground while teaching the benefits of a working, productive life from doorstep to doorstep, not from on high in Washington. Strengthening the intermediate layers of society to reward work and fight poverty is the next step for welfare reform.

Take the refugee benefits provided to all Cuban immigrants. The “no-questions-asked” availability of government assistance to Cuban arrivals has led to abuse and payouts that too often end up in the coffers of the Castro regime. The bill President Clinton signed into law in 1996 ended automatic welfare benefits for many recently arrived immigrants, but it made an exception for anyone coming from Cuba, on the assumption that anyone coming from Cuba was fleeing political persecution.

#related#Although we continue to see many Cubans arriving in the U.S. who fled their home country out of fear for their lives, we also see many more who should be characterized as economic migrants rather than political refugees. The current condition has resulted in many Cubans coming to the U.S. and claiming refugee benefits, only to repeatedly return to Cuba — the very place they supposedly fled. This kind of abuse wasted more than $680 million in 2014 — a number that has certainly gone up since then. We should build on the progress of the 1996 reform law by ending automatic eligibility for these benefits.

There is still more work to be done 20 years after America’s landmark welfare-reform effort. It was not easy to reform the social safety net then, and it will not be easy now. It will take courage and moral clarity to enact the pro-work, pro-family policies that can help create a flourishing society. But the bill’s anniversary is a reminder of the opportunity and prosperity that can be achieved when we take America’s most daunting challenges head-on.

— Marco Rubio represents Florida in the U.S. Senate.

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