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Welfare Reformed, Poverty Persists

By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Ten years have passed since President Clinton signed a tough welfare reform law in August 1996. I feared the worst. Ten years later, it feels good to be wrong. The worst has not happened, but the success is mixed.

Clinton signed the law with Republican support, fulfilling his promise to "end welfare as we know it" and make welfare "a second chance, not a way of life." The law was not as tough as two earlier Republican-backed bills Clinton vetoed that would have cut Medicaid, child care and other benefits for those moving from welfare to work.

Yet, even the late Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, D-N.Y., a longtime critic of the way welfare had bred long-term dependency, feared thousands of poor children would wind up "sleeping on grates."

"In our confusion we are doing mad things," he lamented on the Senate floor. "The premise of this legislation is that the behavior of certain adults can be changed by making the lives of their children as wretched as possible. This is a fearsome assumption."

A study by the Urban Institute, a liberal-leaning Washington-based think tank, agreed, estimating the bill would plunge 1.5 million adults and 1.1 million children below the poverty line. Three Clinton administration officials quit their jobs in protest.

"So much for welfare as we knew it." I wrote warily at the time, "Now, we wonder, what welfare will we know? Or, more to the point, what kind of poverty will we know?"

Ten years later, I can happily report that few, if any, families have been sleeping on grates. Boosted by a robust economy in the late 1990s, many families, three-fourths of whom are headed by single moms, have entered the world of work with some assistance from public aid offices that learned to function more like employment-service agencies.

Earnings for the poorest 40 percent of families headed by women doubled from 1994 to 2000, before a recession that wiped out almost half of that gain.

Teen pregnancies have continued a decline that began a couple of years before welfare reform was passed and child support collections are up.

Child poverty rates have dropped, particularly among blacks and Hispanics. The overall child poverty rate fell from 20.8 percent in 1995 to 17.8 percent in 2004, which means 1.6 million fewer children were living in poverty, happily proclaims Robert Rector, a Heritage Foundation research fellow who helped draft the reform legislation.

However, his liberal counterparts in Washington's think tank communities are quick to respond that child poverty already had begun to decline a couple of years before the bill was passed and has been rising since a historic low of 15.9 percent in 2000 when the economic boom cooled.

Unfortunately, a disturbing number of former welfare recipients have merely moved to the ranks of the "working poor," still struggling to make ends meet with a subpoverty income.

Those who have mental illness, substance abuse, criminal records and other such complications in their lives have the least success in gaining or keeping employment.

And more than half of those eligible for welfare payments do not receive them, indicating the new system discourages many deserving people from even submitting an application.

The Bush administration is pushing for tougher requirements - with a goal of getting at least half of those on welfare into job training, community service or some other alternative activity. That's only a modest part of what needs to be done. The next round of welfare reform needs to take into account the needs of the new working who were produced by the first round.

With that, welfare reform should expand into a pro-work, anti-poverty program, which means inclusion of what may be the largest group left behind: young males, particularly young, undereducated black males.

Recent university studies have found that both the economic boom and welfare reform, which is aimed mainly at mothers with children, left young black males worse off than before by every economic measure. Reaching this group will require more than government action. It will require widespread public and private-sector action at the national and neighborhood levels. But the welfare debate is a good place to begin. We've made unexpected progress in the fight against welfare dependency. Now let's fight poverty.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(c) By The Chicago Tribune | Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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