Welfare Time Warp

DODGE CITY -- As Congress debates President Bush's welfare plan, they are hearing a lot of complaints about the plan from the nation's governors. The White House proposal, which would increase work requirements and encourage marriage among poor women, has Mr. Bush's former colleagues in state houses protesting that it will reduce their flexibility. But Bush's proposal is even more out of touch with a far larger constituency: the American public.

In the years leading up to the 1996 welfare reform overhaul, the public was enraged about a welfare system that many saw as fostering dependency and undermining family stability. To listen to President Bush's recent tough welfare talk about curbing illegitimacy and enforcing the work ethic, one would think we're stuck in a conversation from the early 1990s. But six years later, the public has different views about welfare and poverty. They're less intent on making moral judgments through the welfare system. Instead, new surveys show that Americans are more interested in assisting low-income workers get the help they need to be economically secure: subsidized childcare and health care, decent wages, and more opportunities to climb into the middle class

Opinion polls over the past few years have documented a softening of public views on welfare and new concern about the challenges faced by poor Americans. According to a poll released last month by Peter D. Hart Research, voters say that expanding training, childcare, and other work supports should be the number one welfare priority for Congress. Meanwhile, marriage formation and increased work requirements are at the bottom of the list. By 86% to 8%, voters think that expanding work supports should be a higher priority than programs that encourage marriage. And they choose work supports over tougher work requirements by 71% to 22%.

The support for these policies is not limited to the context of welfare. In another survey, a full 81% of Americans said that the working poor should be eligible for the same kinds of help that people who are transition from welfare to work get. The old distinctions between the "welfare poor" and the "working poor" have diminished in the public's mind. In its place is a concern about the paucity of good paying jobs and the pinch being felt by Americans who don't earn enough to afford healthcare, child care, and housing.

So why is Mr. Bush and conservative members of Congress so obsessed with marrying off poor women? And why is the Administration demanding work requirements that even Republican governors oppose? They say it's because children in married families are far less likely to be poor than those in single-parent families, and that work is the most

David Callahan and Tammy Draut: The Welfare Time Warp important path out of poverty. Well all that is true. But the American public realizes that this is a gross oversimplification and far from the whole story.

What does the public know that the Administration doesn't? Perhaps they know that the primary reasons why many single-mothers are poor are not the lack of a wedding ring or a work ethic, but rather low wages, poor education and low skills, and a lack of childcare. The average American is anything but a social scientist, but their views on welfare and poverty parallel many of the conclusions of leading research institutions, such as the Urban Institute and the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, which have exhaustively evaluated the impact of the 1996 welfare law.

Six years after "ending welfare as we know it," social scientists have more than enough evidence about what changes are needed next. The recommendations aren't too surprising and mirror the preferences of the public: more investments in childcare, transportation, and training and education to help parents get jobs that pay a decent wage. A pilot program in one state even captured the holy grail conservatives are after. Minnesota's Family Investment Program increased marriage rates among single recipients and increased marital stability among two-parent recipient families. The program also increased child well-being and dramatically reduced domestic violence. Its formula for success? It simply increased recipient incomes by allowing them to better combine welfare and earnings. By helping families get a leg up the economic ladder, the program increased employment, reduced poverty and unexpectedly affected family formation.

Perhaps President Bush's aides haven't seen this report, or any of the hundreds of studies on welfare that have been completed since 1996 which suggest very different priorities than the Administration is proposing. Or maybe the Administration did its homework but prefers to cater to ideologues on the conservative right when it comes to policy decisions affecting poor families. Either way, Mr. Bush's welfare plan not only lacks compassion, it lacks common sense. The public understands this; the question now is whether Congress will too.

 

Opinion polls over the past few years have documented a softening of public views on welfare and new concern about the challenges faced by poor Americans. According to a poll released last month by Peter D. Hart Research, voters say that expanding training, childcare, and other work supports should be the number one welfare priority for Congress.