Jason DeParle shows in American Dream that the 1996 welfare reform was a huge success -- way beyond the expectations of either the Clinton Democrats or the Gingrich Republicans who worked together to create it. The combination of time limits, lifetime limits, and work requirements led to a 90% reduction in the welfare rolls.
The main thing that worked, DeParle concludes, was the work requirement. Even threatening to require work was enough to get many people to get -- and keep -- jobs, instead of trying to get welfare. And that worked, DeParle believes, because the women getting welfare didn't think of themselves as dependent on it. They saw themselves as workers. Most of them had jobs, off and on, which they lied about to the welfare office. They saw themselves as workers, even if they had never worked regularly. They saw themselves as survivors, even if most of the troubles they had to survive were of their own making.
The hard part of welfare reform comes now, when we have to sustain the will to stick to the lifetime limits as the economy recedes from the Clinton-era high. The easiest thing for welfare establishment to do is just give money to people who ask for it. Enforcing welfare is even more of a hassle for caseworkers than it is for welfare recipients.
That is why DeParle's account is so helpful: welfare reform has been a success for the former welfare recipients. That is why we should stick to it.