Welfare Reform: Less Than Meets the Eye

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As Congress debates the reauthorization ofwelfare reform, it is valuable to look back overnearly six years of experience with the PersonalResponsibility and Work Opportunity ReconciliationAct to see exactly what welfare reform canand cannot accomplish. Welfare reform has notbeen the disaster predicted by its critics, but neitherhas it been the extraordinary success hailedby its supporters.

Welfare reform has led to a substantial reductionin welfare rolls, largely by speeding the exit ofthose individuals who were most likely to have lefteventually even in the absence of reform. Althoughthe decline in welfare rolls has slowed and evenreversed in some states as a result of the slowingeconomy, reform itself, and in particular sanctions,has played an important roll in reducing the numberof people receiving cash welfare benefits.

On the other hand, welfare reform has beenfar less successful in meeting most of its othergoals. Neither time limits nor work requirementshave been vigorously enforced. Welfare reformhas failed to significantly reduce out-of-wedlockbirths to young women. And, most important, ithas not enabled former recipients to becomeindependent and self-sufficient.

In the end, our experience with PRWORAshows the limits of welfare reform. The long-termanswer to poverty and dependency does notlie with any government program, no matterhow well intentioned. Congress needs to gobeyond proposals that simply tinker with welfareand begin to phase out government assistance infavor of private charity. At the same timeCongress should aggressively pursue policiesthat promote economic growth and job creation.When it comes to welfare, we should end it, notmend it.

Michael D. Tanner

Michael Tanner is director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute and author of The Poverty of Welfare: Helping Others in Civil Society (forthcoming).