The Magazine

Remember Welfare Reform?

Jun 2, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 37 • By DAVID BROOKS, FOR THE EDITORS
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Still, welfare reform played an important role. It changed the culture, rearranged the incentives, and acted as a catalyst for other improvements that followed. Welfare reform demonstrated that poverty is not always intractable. Good policies can produce real improvements in people's lives. There are reasons to be optimistic and idealistic even in the face of long-running social problems.

Now welfare reform is up for congressional reauthorization. This has been a remarkably low-key affair, generating little debate or public attention. The welfare activists and the mainstream welfare reporters went looking for horror stories after the law was passed. Failing to find them, they have fallen into a sullen stupor. Among media types, only Mickey Kaus, an enthusiastic reform advocate, seems eager to talk about the record.

More astonishing is how little the White House has done to highlight the reauthorization debate. Here is an issue that puts the Democratic party on the defensive. The Democrats are split, with liberals still sourly defending the ancien régime. Extending welfare reform could revive compassionate conservatism, and breathe new life into the hopeful domestic themes that George Bush sounded during the 2000 campaign.

It's true that the White House has proposed a measure that would continue the momentum of welfare reform. It's true that President Bush has delivered a few speeches. But if you were a casual observer of these things, you could easily get the impression that tax cuts comprise the entire Bush domestic policy. Surely this is a mistake.

There are sound policy reasons to highlight welfare reform. The progress we have made in fighting poverty is slowing. In the current economy, welfare rolls are beginning to inch up again. What's more, we still have a way to go in helping families get off public support permanently. Mothers are now more likely to have jobs, but still rely on a panoply of federal programs and subsidies. As Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute notes in a judicious essay in the Winter 2003 issue of the Public Interest, "Liberals were . . . right about the difficulty most mothers leaving welfare would have in becoming financially self-sufficient."

Moreover, states have taken advantage of loopholes in the law to excuse welfare recipients from work requirements. In Massachusetts, for example, only 6 percent of the state's welfare recipients have jobs, and over 90 percent are exempt from work requirements. There is still little institutionalized policy support for marriage, the greatest of all anti-poverty programs.

The Bush administration has tried to close these loopholes, but the entire reauthorization is stalled in Congress--a Republican Congress. It's time to turn up the volume and the heat on this whole issue. It's time to bring the moral conviction and optimistic spirit that has characterized Bush's foreign policy home to the domestic front.

--David Brooks, for the Editors