Commentary

Welfare Reform Rhetoric — Not Reality — in Vermont

By Jenifer Zeigler
February 5, 2004

At a Children’s Defense Fund forum last spring, candidate Howard Dean touted his administration in Vermont as “pioneers in welfare reform.” True, Vermont was among the first states to implement welfare reform before it was federally mandated. But Dean was wise to cite Vermont as being “first” at reform, and not “best.” According to an upcoming Cato Institute study, the reforms made in Vermont under Gov. Dean rank dead last compared to every other state.

The study provides an analysis of each state’s reform efforts by looking at factors such as the degree of need, measurements to prevent the need for welfare assistance, and the strength of work requirements. The idea behind welfare reform has been that states can more effectively use resources to create self-sufficient families while at the same time moving away from an entitlement theory of welfare.

In comparison to every other state, Vermont falls short. For instance, a 1998 study by the Tufts University Center on Hunger and Poverty found that Vermont leads the states in implementing reforms that will “improve the financial condition of the poor” by providing greater eligibility for cash assistance and increasing the amounts of assistance — but increasing and broadening handouts isn’t reform. Those measures have been proven to hamper states’ ability to enforce any meaningful requirements.

In response to Vermont’s faring so well in the Tufts study, Dean said: “What we do that’s different is we don’t cut off all benefits; we cut off cash benefits, which means people don’t get kicked out in the street.”

So, in the spirit of not kicking people into the street, Vermont has far and away the most lax enforcement measures for failure to engage in work-related activities, according to Cato’s report card. And, on top of that, Vermont has the laxest definition of what counts as work-related activity. It’s hardly surprising that Vermont’s initiatives have produced results in the bottom third of each of the report card’s measures for work participation.

Further, the Green Mountain state’s not-so-tough love approach to welfare reform doesn’t provide any incentive for recipients to attempt self-sufficiency. If the basics of childcare, health care, and housing remain covered by the state, where’s the incentive to work? Between January of 1996 and January of 2002, Vermont managed to reduce its welfare caseload by 45 percent, well below the national average. By contrast, Wyoming moved an astounding 92 percent of its welfare-dependent population off the dole during that time.

But beyond failing to adequately encourage self-sufficiency, Vermont’s welfare vision fails to discourage behaviors that might prevent recipients from breaking the cycle of welfare dependency. In particular, the Dean administration didn’t push for any kind of family cap policy that would deny additional benefits to women who have children while receiving assistance. Vermont’s performance on discouraging teen pregnancy and requiring responsible supervision of pregnant minors is also less than stellar.

So what was Dean talking about when he said that welfare reform has been a positive force? His record in Vermont would make it seem as though reform is simply the mixing of a pre-reform mentality of entitlements with a meek, parenthetical suggestion that people try to do a little better at supporting themselves.

But true reform won’t come from a mere suggestion. Voters who are truly interested in moving welfare recipients towards self-sufficiency and reining in the $434 billion spent each year on welfare in this country should look again at Dean’s record as governor and compare his performance to his rhetoric of reform.

Jenifer Zeigler is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute and the author of a forthcoming study on welfare reform in the 50 states.