Outside view: Baucus welfare plan's a bust

By LESLIE CARBONE, A UPI Outside view commentary  |  Aug. 10, 2002 at 2:27 PM
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FAIRFAX, Va., Aug. 10 (UPI) -- "The days of the dole are numbered," declared President Lyndon Baines Johnson as he launched his so-called War on Poverty. Thirty years, $8 trillion, and millions of fatherless families later, President Bill Clinton signed the revolutionary Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better known simply as the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.

The law fundamentally changed the welfare system. The largest federal welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children or AFDC, was transformed into Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, known by the shorthand TANF. The name change signifies one of the most important reforms of the welfare system: Welfare was no longer a life-long deal; an individual could now receive program aid for only five years over the course of his lifetime.

Unlike the old AFDC, which perversely rewarded people for poor choices, like not working and having children outside wedlock, TANF aid is linked to better behavior. Recipients are expected to "earn" welfare aid by working.

The law currently requires that at least 50 percent of a state's welfare recipients be engaged in work or constructive activity leading to work: for example, job searching, training, and community service. Unmarried mothers of children under six years old are required to spend at least 20 hours per week on such activity; other recipients are required to perform 30 hours per week.

These requirements have greatly reduced poverty and dependency. Within five years after Clinton made good on his campaign promise to end welfare as we knew it, state welfare caseloads were cut roughly in half.

According to the Heritage Foundation, there are 4.2 million fewer people living in poverty, including 2.3 million children, than in 1996. Welfare reform changed millions of lives not just because it required people to earn paychecks, but perhaps even more significantly because it introduced them to the moral benefits of work.

Work builds character. It replaces self-contempt with a healthy self-satisfaction, a feeling of despair with a sense of responsibility for oneself and one's family. Because work forces people to plan ahead, it carries them beyond the frustration of immediate concerns and promotes hope for the future.

While the success of welfare reform is great news for poor families, it's pretty embarrassing for their self-appointed champions, whose dire warnings against reforming the system have been resoundingly disproved.

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, called the 1996 law an "outrage ... that will hurt and impoverish millions of American children" and "leave a moral blot on (Clinton's) presidency".

Patricia Ireland, then president of the National Organization for Women, claimed that the law "places 12.8 million people on welfare at risk of sinking further into poverty and homelessness".

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., called the law "the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction."

Today's Senate Democrats, having apparently learned little in the last six years, are still following LBJ's Poverty Reduction Playbook. Instead of trying to improve more lives by expanding the work requirements, Senate Democrats are actually trying to destroy these provisions.

Welfare reform is set to expire on Sept. 30. Regrettably, the Democrat-controlled Senate is considering a reauthorization bill drafted by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., that effectively guts the 1996 law's work requirements.

While Baucus' Work, Opportunity, and Responsibility for Kids Act gives lip service to "universal engagement" in work and work preparation, WORK probably wouldn't require anybody to work, according to Heritage's Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies Robert Rector. This is because it includes excessive loopholes allowing states to escape from its nominal requirements.

For example, the bill frees states from work-participation minimums if they meet any two of the following conditions: increasing unemployment, increasing TANF caseloads, or increasing food stamp caseloads.

It excludes mothers with young children from having to work -- and actually contains a provision to pay them union-scale wages for caring for their own children. It allows recipients to count time spent on college education toward their so-called work requirements.

As President George W. Bush explained on July 29, "Under the way they're ... writing it right now out of the Senate Finance Committee, some people could spend their entire five years ... on welfare going to college. ... [T]hat's not my view of helping people become independent. And it's certainly not my view of understanding the importance of work and helping people achieve the dignity necessary so they can live a free life, free from government control."

The Baucus bill also diminishes welfare recipients' opportunities for finding work. WORK would make many state workfare programs prohibitively expensive by forcing welfare agencies to pay unemployment insurance and Social Security taxes on recipients participating in them, robbing these would-be workers not only of employment but also of a job's attendant opportunities to build marketable skills and its promise for the future.

The bill also stipulates that a welfare recipient working in a non-profit organization or government agency may not perform any tasks previously performed by a regular employee, even if the former employee left voluntarily and the organization had increased its staff in other areas.

In contrast, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in May passed a reauthorization bill that would increase the work requirement to 40 hours for most welfare recipients.

This is the better option.

People don't achieve success by meeting substandard expectations. Coddling welfare recipients against the realities of full-time work only traps them in the frustration of directionless lives and perpetuates the assumptions of the welfare state and its catalogue of miseries.

We can build on the early advances of welfare reform only by raising the bar. The success of welfare reform has been strong but incomplete. Now is the time to take the victory to the next level by strengthening -- not destroying -- the requirements that have already changed 4.2 million lives.

-- Leslie Carbone, author of the forthcoming book Slaying Leviathan: The Moral Case for Tax Reform has edited two books on welfare reform.

-- "Outside View" commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.

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