Commentary

One of the worst — Rhode Island’s welfare-reform failure

By Jenifer Zeigler
This article originally appeared in the Providence Journal on October 22, 2004.
When the Federal government passed welfare reform in 1996, the idea was to give states more authority and control over their welfare programs. As the “laboratories of democracy,” states experiment with different approaches for helping their poorest residents. Unfortunately, not every state has been a success story.

Rhode Island’s efforts at welfare reform have been a dismal failure by almost every measure, according to a study released this week by the Washington, D.C.-based Cato Institute.

The study grades states on how they have changed their welfare systems under the new reform laws, and how those changes have helped-or hampered-welfare recipients as they strive for self-sufficiency. The report card grades each state based on the programs and policies it has executed and the results those policies have had.

Rhode Island received an F grade because it failed to implement stringent work requirements and sanctions, shorten time limits, tighten loopholes, and narrow definitions of work activity. The state only reduced its welfare caseload 37 percent, when the national average was 60 percent and some states saw declines in the 80 and 90th percentile.

How did the other states fare? On Cato’s report card four received A’s, seven received B’s, twenty scored C’s, eleven trailed with D’s, and nine received F’s.

Idaho and Ohio did a good job of getting recipients work experience, diverting potential welfare recipients from the rolls with one-time emergency assistance, and requiring teenage mothers to live at home and finish high school. Those states, along with Wyoming and Wisconsin received an A on the report card.

Rhode Island can learn a lot from those states. Now is the time for Rhode Island to truly embrace welfare reform. An important debate about the future of welfare reform is shaping up, and it needs to take place in a public forum.

Welfare is due for reauthorization next year and Rhode Island’s newly elected representatives will decide the direction welfare reform will take. The next president elected will be responsible for signing the reforms into law; and perhaps most importantly, state officials will face decisions on how best to shape welfare programs for the people who need them.

Will they revert to the old, failed policies of the past? Will they maintain the status quo of welfare reform? Or will they seek bold new innovations that can improve upon the work done since 1996?

Welfare reform is one of few issues that is directly influenced by all levels of government: the president must sign federal welfare-reform reauthorization into law; Congress must draft the legislation and vote it through; state governors and legislatures must decide how to design the state programs and spend the money; and county and city governments must deliver efficient social services. Yet almost none of the people running for the many offices that have a hand in the welfare system are talking about how they would reform it.

Presidential candidates talk about job growth but not about how to equip welfare recipients to fill those jobs. Congressional candidates mention the increase in the poverty rate but not how to help families become financially independent. Candidates for statewide office and the state legislature should promote a welfare system that encourages students to finish high school, prevents teenage pregnancy, and gets welfare recipients working — the keys to self-sufficiency. Are they?

Welfare reform affects every taxpayer and is a concern at every level of government. Candidates need to discuss where they think welfare reform should go from here and if they don’t, voters need to demand answers from candidates on where they stand.

Jenifer Zeigler is a welfare-policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank.