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The General Welfare

As the NY Times reports, "Despite the Sluggish Economy, Welfare Rolls Actually Shrank".

After Congress overhauled the nation's welfare system in 1996, the number of families receiving benefits dropped much faster than federal and state officials had expected. Even more remarkable, officials say, the rolls did not grow during the recession of 2001 or the sluggish economy since.

In fact, in the last three years, the number of families on welfare has declined slightly, to two million, which is less than half the number receiving public assistance when President Bill Clinton signed the welfare law in August 1996.

Experts suggest many reasons. People work harder to find jobs before seeking public assistance. Welfare recipients have learned job skills and a work ethic. States provide child care and other noncash help so they can keep jobs after leaving welfare. And, some experts say, new rules and requirements may intimidate poor people from seeking welfare.

The article does imply overall that it is a good thing that fewer people are on welfare (imagine that), but of course there are the obligatory quotes from those who don't agree:

Shawn Fremstad, a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning research and advocacy group, said, "Falling caseloads amid rising poverty should be a cause for concern."

Wendell E. Primus, a welfare official in the Clinton administration who resigned to protest signing of the 1996 law, amplified that concern: "It's an indictment of the welfare law, the welfare system, that it has not been more responsive to economic conditions."

Meaning, perhaps, that it hasn't been responsive in the way that Wendell E. Primus expected it to be a few years back:

To call welfare reform a "striking public policy success" would overstate its impact significantly. Let's see what happens during a recession and when more families reach the five-year time limit imposed by the 1996 law. Welfare reform is publicly perceived as successful because of dramatically reduced caseloads, increased employment of single mothers, declining child poverty, and even some increase in the percentage of children living in two-parent families. But these developments are not just due to welfare reform but also to the strong economy of the 1990s, which was able to raise real wages at the bottom of the scale and reduce unemployment to its lowest levels in 30 years

So now that the economy isn't as strong, Primus regards this success as a failure. Strange. Anyway, Mickey Kaus, on the same page, has a great rebuttal:

The 1996 welfare reform was a defeat for "Money Liberals," such as Wendell Primus, who are concerned above all else with getting money into the hands of those in the bottom quintiles of the income charts. Reform was a victory for the work ethic, and the notion that honoring this popular American value - by not giving cash to those who don't work - is ultimately the best way to build a decent society for poor and rich.

Read the whole thing (TM).


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