Liberals Were Wrong About Welfare Reform
It was the reform the liberals said would not work, and the one many didn’t want to work.
So it seems a good time to remember the drama — make that melodrama — that the bill unleashed in 1996. Cries from Democrats of “anti-family,” “anti-child,” “mean-spirited,” echoed through the Capitol, as did warnings of impending Third World–style poverty: “children begging for money, children begging for food, eight- and nine-year-old prostitutes,” as New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg put it. “They are coming for the children,” Congressman John Lewis of Georgia wailed — “coming for the poor, coming for the sick, the elderly and disabled.” Congressman William Clay of Missouri demanded, “What’s next? Castration?” Senator Ted Kennedy called it “legislative child abuse,” Senator Chris Dodd, “unconscionable,” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan — in what may well be the lowest point of an otherwise miraculous career — “something approaching an Apocalypse.”What have been the actual effects? A huge decrease (about 60%) in the welfare roles. A drop in poverty, and indeed in child poverty. The majority of women who have left the welfare roles are working.
Other Washington bigwigs took up the cry. Marion Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund called the bill “national child abandonment” and likened it to the burning of Vietnamese villages. Immediately after President Clinton signed the bill, some of his top appointees quit in protest, including Edelman’s husband, Peter, who let loose with an article in The Atlantic Monthly titled, “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done.” No less appalled, the Chicago Tribune seconded Congresswoman Carol Moseley Braun’s branding the bill an “abomination.” And while in 2004 the New York Times lauded the legislation as “one of the acclaimed successes of the past decade,” the editors seem to have forgotten that they were irately against it before they were for it, pronouncing it “draconian” and a “sad day for poor children.”
But what hasn’t been achieved? The revival of marriage and family and a reduction of out-of-wedlock births. But even here, there is some evidence of a leveling off of the nasty trends that prevailed in the decades before reform.