Friday, September 05, 2008

American Dream 4: What Welfare Reform Still Needs

Jason DeParle concludes that welfare reform really did work in reducing the rolls, way beyond what anyone expected. And it has not led to masses of destitute people, in part because so many on welfare were already working when the new law forced them to "find" work. As DeParle says, the poor had more options than the reformers expected.

If welfare reform is to keep working, the bureaucracy and the policymakers will have to maintain the will to uphold the time limits and lifetime limits on welfare eligibility.

DeParle admits that he and the other poverty reporters missed the other half of what has worked in welfare reform: the Earned Income Tax Credit. EITC gives money back to working parents. It is the largest poverty reduction program in the country. Both parties support it because it gives money to working poor parents, proportionate to their work and their earnings. Sen. Obama proposes to expand EITC, and many states have or are considering their own versions to supplement the federal program.

The big domestic policy debate, for the poor and everyone else, is over health insurance. The Child Health Insurance Program is the foot in the door for federally supported health care for all. The debate is over whether to expand it to poor adults or not.

DeParle says what welfare reform still needs is more for child care, wage supplements, and transportation. He also thinks that the work requirement, though vitally important, has gone too far in eliminating most job training programs.

DeParle mentions in passing what I think is the biggest failing of welfare reform: it is only aimed at women. Welfare reform drove poor women from welfare to work; not men. This is especially true for African Americans. DeParle reports that about half of all black men are without regular legal employment, compared to perhaps a fifth of white and Hispanic men. The black illegitimacy rate is nearly 70%, vs. less than half than for the other groups. In the black slums, marriage has all but disappeared. For the women in DeParle's study, marriage was a dream on par with wanting a unicorn; none of them had ever been to a wedding.

I think what welfare reform needs if it is ever to actually reduce poverty and dependency is a way to promote marriage, fatherhood, and responsibility among poor men.

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