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Workfare – A Shining Example of Conservative, Biblical Public Policy8 min read

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This week’s Economist has a great couple of articles reviewing the results of the past 10 years of "workfare," the conservative welfare reforms initiated by the Gingrich Republicans of 1996.  The changes were an overwhelming success, and the Economist also provides suggested next steps for how to fill in the remaining gaps in the program.

Workfare Success

Liberal Fear Mongering

In Tough love works, the author discusses how the liberal warnings (read "fear mongering") about the catastrophic results of "welfare to work" policies turned out to be totally false.

Welfare reform was once regarded as a harsh, right-wing, America-only idea. But an unexpected lesson of the past ten years is that it enjoys much wider political appeal. Within America, its success has silenced the former fierce opposition of left-wing Democrats…

The reform, controversial enough in America, was reviled in many parts of Europe. Its opponents said that welfare claimants, most of them single mothers, would be unable to find work. They and their families, it was argued, were being condemned to destitution.

Ten years on, such dire warnings have been proved spectacularly wrong. America’s welfare rolls have fallen by over half as existing claimants have found work and fewer people have gone on benefit in the first place. A strong economy, generating plenty of jobs, has undoubtedly helped; but the main reason for the steep decline in caseloads is the reform itself. Furthermore, there has been no upsurge in the poverty rate; in fact, it has fallen over the period. Most of the jobs taken by former claimants are poorly paid, but in general they are doing somewhat better than when they were on welfare.

Europe’s Flailing Welfare States Follow Suit

Thankfully, the increasingly impoverished (yet still touted by liberals as "enlightened") welfare states in Europe are following suit:

Smaller European states like the Netherlands and Denmark have also introduced strict conditions to get people off welfare and have boosted incentives to work by making benefits less generous. The success of such policies in cutting unemployment has helped to convince more resistant countries like France and Germany that they, too, must move away from entitlement to conditionality. Belatedly, they are starting to adopt similar measures as part of their drive to cut chronically high rates of joblessness.

Why Workfare Succeeded

The other article, From welfare to workfare (requires subscription), discusses why the reforms worked – not just because of a good economy, but because of the wisdom of the reforms themselves, as well as conservative tax reforms:

A decade ago, much of the political left believed that such a rapid transition from welfare to work was impossible, and the reforms cruel. Why did they turn out so much better than the doomsayers predicted? A booming economy surely deserves some credit. The unemployment rate fell by 2.7 percentage points from 1993 to 1999, as rapid growth prompted employers to create more jobs. A healthy economy, however, was only part of the story. Last year Jeffrey Grogger, at the University of Chicago, and Lynn Karoly, at the RAND Corporation, published a book summarizing scores of studies of welfare reform, including nine that tried to gauge the role of the strong jobs market. At best, falling unemployment accounted for only one-third of the drop in welfare caseloads.

Wage subsidies also helped a great deal. In 1993, the government sharply increased the earned-income tax credit (EITC), which helps low-income workers by adding federal money to their wages. That made work more rewarding, and many single mothers were quick to give it a try.   The 1996 welfare reforms themselves, however, clearly explain much of the success.

The Liberal Welfare Model is like…

You have to love (or hate ;) this quote about the liberal model of welfare:

Jason Turner—a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank—argues that “the political left believed in a hospital model of the poor: caretaking and compassion with low expectations.”

Good Results, But More to Do

Of course, workfare is not perfect, and there is room for improvement.  Not only do we need to do more to lift wages of those who are working, but we need to help the 10-15% who are now not working or on welfare (cf. the Urban Institute, a liberal thinktank that also reviews the last ten years of workfare), usually mentally or otherwise disabled, who just can’t work or hold down a job.  The article has some great suggestions.

The good news is that, having largely won the battle against idleness and dependency, America is now in a much better position to attack poverty head on. But it will not succeed by simply ratcheting up the states’ work requirements, as Congress did earlier this year. Instead, America must build on the past decade’s accomplishments by tackling three important challenges.

  1. Find new ways to help the children of those who are mildly disabled, emotionally disturbed, mentally slow or addicted to drugs or alcohol.
  2. America’s second challenge, now that so many former welfare mothers have ended up in low-paying jobs, is to raise the incomes of the working poor. That means giving them skills.
  3. Change the odds that young women will end up on welfare.

On this last point, the article points to encouraging girls to stay in school and not get pregnant, and to boost the income of poor men.  I would add that we need to encourage chastity and parental responsibility, esp. in men, since recent reports link urban poverty directly to absentee fathering, which is endemic in the poor black community, which is mentioned in the recent Heritage Foundation lecture Marriage and the Welfare of America: the Tenth Anniversary of Welfare Reform.

One in three children goes to bed every night without the benefit of a father in their home.  Why does that concern us? It concerns us because, as a whole, children do best when they grow up in a stable family with two, continuously married parents.

  • All things being equal, they do better academi­cally.
  • They are half as likely to have emotional or behavioral problems.
  • They are less likely to use illegal drugs, drink alcohol, or smoke tobacco.
  • They are less likely to be physically abused, less likely to suffer physical neglect, and less likely to suffer emotional neglect.
  • And, finally, children in two-parent families are seven times less likely to live in poverty.

But these sentiments have been around for a while.  In 2005, Robert Rector wrote in How Not to Be Poor:

The press often argues that race, not marriage, is the key to explaining persistent poverty. But in America, race, poverty, and marital collapse are inextricably entangled. Black children have higher poverty rates mainly because blacks have lower marriage rates. Black children raised by married couples are almost as unlikely to be poor as whites raised in the same manner (12 percent to 8 percent respectively). The problem is that comparatively few black families are intact.

Sixty-eight percent of black children are born out of wedlock. This problem is compounded by the fact that (among both blacks and whites) out-of-wedlock childbearing is correlated with low levels of maternal education. Overall, the women who are least capable of supporting a family are the most likely to go it alone.

There is more we can do, but I want to reiterate that conservative, biblical (not religious ;) public policy works because it is based on tried and true principles, not secular humanistic, utopian musings.  Ideas such as workfare, the sanctity of life, the sanctity of the male/female marriage bond, public support for the virtues of chastity, thrift, industry (hard work), and honesty make for peace and prosperity.  So let’s keep waging the war against the twin errors of secular humanism and religious fundamentalism, and return to a humanism based on biblical principle.