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The Best Antidote to Poverty: Jobs, Not Welfare Reform

The anniversary of welfare reform is a fitting occasion to consider how opinion can trump fact and bias policy. The problem with “ending welfare as we knew it” was that it did not end or meaningfully reduce poverty, nor did it secure a decent standard of living for struggling Americans. The poor are still poor, and now they have neither a hand-up nor a hand-out. Jake Blumgart reports that, since 1996, states have been clearing the welfare rolls but leaving poor families with few alternatives:

In Georgia, before reform, for every 100 families in poverty, there were 98 families helped by welfare. Now only 8 families in every 100 receive TANF money, and the caseloads have continued to decline during the recession despite a poverty rate over 16 percent. In 2010, Wyoming had a bare 306 families on its welfare rolls, or 1 percent of the state’s population below the poverty line. Mississippi allows 12,804 families on the rolls but only gives a family of three $170 a month (which is an annual income that equals 11 percent of the poverty line, or $2,040 a year).

Still, politicians left and right, exalt welfare reform and the blow that is supposedly dealt to the culture of poverty and dependency. Their most significant argument is that, even after a global economic meltdown, U.S. poverty rates are lower than they were in 1996. This is supposed to show us just how bad things must have been. But this is neither an indictment of the old welfare system or proof of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act’s (PRWORA) success.

Under the old program, Assistance to Families with Dependent Children, poverty fell from 22.4 percent in 1959 to low of 11.1 percent in 1973. The poverty rate then only rose substantially in the 1980s under the Reagan and Bush administrations (15.2 percent in 1983), both of which were committed to cutting federal welfare programs. From 1980 to 1989, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's budget was cut from $74 billion to $19 billion.

Moreover, the poverty rate was falling prior to PRWORA being implemented. When Clinton took office in 1993, the rate was 15.1 percent. When PRORWA took effect in July of 1997, the rate had already declined by 1.8 percent. From 1997-2000, the poverty rate declined only 2.0 percent. In other words, most of the decline in poverty could be attributed not to a change in welfare policy but to overall national prosperity. The poor worked when there were jobs to be had. There was no culture of poverty!  

In spite of facts, old habits die hard. That is why right wing pundits are fear-mongering about food stamps creating dependency. Republican politicians are responding in kind. In March, GOP House members proposed the Welfare Reform Act of 2011 "to build on the reforms of 1996." At the heart of their bill is a provision to tie food stamp eligibility to work requirements. Republican operatives have championed the work requirement citing a Rasmussen poll that shows 55 percent believe people should have to work, or look for work, to receive food stamps.

What may shock Republicans is that the unemployed also hold this belief. That’s why there are almost 5 workers for every 1 available job. The millions of citizens who have swelled the welfare offices since 2007 are not there because their looking for an easy out. They are unemployed and don’t have any bootstraps to pull on. They search for jobs during the day and then use food stamps to put food on the table at night. Again, there is no culture of poverty!

There is however a culture of desperation. Times are hard. To come to terms with the current crises in unemployment and poverty, we have to begin and end with the facts. That means eschewing old superstitions about dependency and the considered wisdom about the success of welfare reform. The best welfare plan known to man is a good job. That is why Americans are so anxious for President Obama to unveil his jobs plan. Hopefully, it will be bold and comprehensive. But if it falls short, let's be sure to protect the poor from the right wing "reformers." They were wrong in 1996, but still haven't learned their lesson.