Jewish World Review Oct. 15, 2002 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763
Americans are pretty good at debating both sides of a question. During the welfare reform debate of the 1990s, everyone got a chance to urge his case -- and predict the outcome if his view did not prevail. What Americans don't do quite as well is look back to see who turned out to be right.
So let's recall that in 1996, when the Republican Congress sent three different welfare reform packages to President Clinton (he vetoed two before finally signing one), liberals made furious and dire predictions about what this would do to poor families and particularly to poor children. Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and the Children's Defense Fund, among many others, argued passionately that welfare reform would result in millions of children being plunged into deeper misery than they were already suffering under the old system.
Opponents of reform always described themselves as "child advocates" or "activists for the poor." Republican reformers wore dull ties with their business suits, instead of the colorful child ties distributed by the Children's Defense Fund. They may not have teared up on the House floor urging their case, but those Republicans were the best thing to happen to poor children in more than a generation.
As Investor's Business Daily notes in a recent editorial, poverty among those 18 and younger declined from 22.7 percent in 1993 to 16.2 percent in 2000, with two-thirds of the decline happening between 1996 and 2000. Yes, there was an economic boom on, but the expansion of the 1980s, which was just as dramatic as that of the 1990s, did not result in such a dramatic drop in child poverty (3 percent). The difference? Welfare reform. Under the old system, many women with children chose the dole over a job because it was there. It was easy.
What about child poverty among those groups thought to be most in danger of destitution: blacks, Hispanics and children of single mothers? Poverty among each of these groups, reports Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, fell at least 11 percentage points. Among black children, the decline was steep. For more than a generation, the poverty rate for black children seemed to do little but climb. But following welfare reform in 1996, black child poverty dropped by a whopping 25 percent. And in 2001, recession or no recession, black child poverty reached its lowest level in American history (30.2 percent).
Prior to welfare reform, 14.7 million children lived in poverty. By 2001, according to recently released Census Bureau statistics, that figure had fallen to 11.7 million. That's still too high, of course. But it is hard to think of a more positive social policy result in such a short time. A number of worrying trends that had been exacerbated by the old welfare system have now been halted or reversed. Out-of-wedlock childbearing has stopped rising, and the percentage of black children living with their married parents has increased.
The story is similar, though not quite as dramatic, for whites, Hispanics and others.
Clearly, welfare reform is not the whole answer to the problem of poverty in America. There continue to be neighborhoods and groups (American Indians, for example, to whom we pay little attention) that are mired in long-term, deeply entrenched poverty that will yield only reluctantly, if at all, to policy changes. And, in defiance of national trends, some regions have stubbornly declined. Thus, a Washington Post story relates the news that "Poverty Deepens in District; More People, Areas Hurting ..."
Social scientists have much to chew over in these new data from the Census Bureau. It would be a terrible mistake to interpret these data as proving that poverty is no longer a problem in this nation. But what the data do prove -- conclusively -- is that the welfare reformers have been proved right and all Americans, but most particularly the poor, should be glad the Republicans achieved a majority in 1994.
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