Welfare reform may be the last great bipartisan success story. It was enacted 20 years ago this month by a Republican Congress led by Newt Gingrich and by Democratic President Bill Clinton in response to decades of public frustration with the U.S. system of aid to the poor.
At the time, the law had liberal enemies, some of whom resigned from Clinton’s administration in protest of his signing it. Those enemies have grown in number in recent years.
Liberals have also grown more and more convinced over time that welfare reform was a material disaster for the poorest among us. For their side, many conservatives have pronounced the system a failure as well, claiming that its safety-net features have done little to affect poverty rates.
The good news is that claims on both sides are almost certainly wrong.
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Scott Winship, a careful researcher at the conservative Manhattan Institute, has a new report arguing that welfare reform deserves to be remembered fondly. It imposed work requirements on many welfare recipients and gave states more flexibility in how they spent welfare funds.
Winship concludes that child poverty has fallen since its enactment and is now at an all-time low. He finds similar trends for households in “deep poverty,” defined as having less than half the income that puts you at the poverty line.
The Census Bureau’s official measurements show only modest improvement in child poverty since 1996. But Winship argues that a more accurate measure should take account of non-cash benefits that poor households receive, such as food stamps. We should also place some economic value on these households’ health-care benefits.
When he adjusts the data in these and other ways, Winship finds that 13.1 percent of children lived in poverty in 1996 while 7.8 percent did in 2014 (the most recent year with available data).
Winship also noted that the deep-poverty trends improved more for children of single mothers than for other groups.
While the paper undermines the liberal conventional wisdom on welfare, it also casts doubt on some conservative talking points.
Many on the right like to say that we had a war on poverty, and poverty won. Winship’s data suggests that poverty would have been significantly worse without the safety net. Winship also stresses that welfare reform was enacted alongside an expansion of the earned-income tax credit, which made work pay more for many households.
There is certainly room to argue that we should be doing more to fight poverty in America and doing a better job of allocating public resources. But Winship’s paper makes a powerful argument that to do so, we should build on the success of welfare reform rather than try to reverse it.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review.