Was Welfare Reform Worthwhile?

is no question that David Ellwood, the Clinton administration's chief welfare
intellectual, has been on a rough ride. But the political lessons he draws are
less than useful (see "Welfare Reform As I
Knew It
," May-June 1996).

To discuss lessons, we need some agreement about what happened. Ellwood
thinks more has been accomplished in the way of reform than most people realize
and names among other things the waivers that have allowed state welfare-to-work
initiatives. I think Douglas Besharov showed the keener judgment when he said at
an American Enterprise Institute meeting in April that "Based on what
happened in the last year, President Clinton can justifiably claim he has ended
welfare as we know it." Besharov points to the veritable flood of state
waiver requests and approvals as "welfare reform on the cheap" without
an increase in spending for child care or "a penny for job training."
The "revolutionary" result is an "end to personal entitlement."

Besharov has reason to crow. State initiatives, including not only time
limits but benefit cuts and sharp sanctions for a variety of disapproved
behaviors, have already resulted in a 10 percent drop in the welfare rolls, with
little known about the fate of these women and children. And this is only the

Ellwood names other accomplishments he thinks are unrecognized: the
expansion of the earned income tax credit, whose future remains uncertain; the
prospect of new child support legislation, which in fact would go only a very
small way toward reducing the need for welfare. But he says nothing about the
uses of the mantra of "welfare reform" to usher in other program
cutbacks, such as the massive Medicaid cuts (on the order of $250 billion over
the next seven years in state and federal spending) included in current
congressional welfare reform proposals.

Altogether, the results of the Clinton welfare reform venture are
calamitous, endangering some 60 years of painfully won poverty reforms.
Nevertheless, Ellwood still thinks the Clinton plan made sense, "practically
and politically." I suppose this also means the role Ellwood himself played
made sense. He seems not to understand that he helped unleash the political
maelstrom that is producing escalating welfare cutbacks. And I think the reason
he doesn't understand is that his image of the political landscape is so
wondrously simple, consisting as it does mainly of "the public" and "the
policy reformer." In this world, the reformer pieces together a policy
package that includes enough of what the public wants, and success is assured.

This clearly was the model that guided Ellwood's 1989 book, Poor Support,
which advocated universal medical protection, raising the minimum wage, a
comprehensive child support assurance system, guaranteed minimum-wage jobs to
ease poverty among female-headed families, and then—to make all of this
palatable—a proposal to limit welfare benefits to between 18 months and 3
years. (I remember saying to him at the time that in the real political world,
the time limits would survive, and the rest would be brushed aside. I am sorry
to have been right.)

The Ellwood model leaves out too much. Public opinion is treated as firm and
fixed, when in actuality it is ambiguous and shifting, and often susceptible to
elite manipulation, especially on matters like welfare of which most people have
little direct knowledge. Ellwood also ignores the historic constraints on
welfare policy generated by its bearing on the labor market, which mean that the
conditions of people on welfare are unlikely to improve when the terms of
low-wage work are deteriorating. And he touches only lightly on the antipathies
toward welfare and the poor etched in American culture. Finally, he ignores the
interests in dollars and votes of the political operatives on whom he relies to
shepherd reform through the legislative process. In short, Ellwood creates a
political world in which there is hardly anything else going on except his
reform efforts.

1992 the constraints on reform were in fact forbidding. Welfare benefit levels
had been falling for two decades, in tandem with declining wages and benefits
for the bottom half of the labor force. There were no signs of the widespread
protest that had sometimes made the benighted poor a force in the past, and in
its absence the women and children on welfare who might have benefited from
parts of the Ellwood agenda were politically helpless, scorned for their poverty
and marked by the stigma of welfare. Common sense and historical experience
suggest this was not the time for academic policy experts to call for time
limits on benefits.

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Under these conditions, the welfare reform crusade almost inevitably turned
into its opposite, as Clinton campaigned on the promise to "end welfare as
we know it" with "two years and off to work." Ellwood fails to
appreciate the significance of this rhetoric: Clinton was using the welfare
issue not as an opportunity to relieve poverty, but as an opportunity to gain
support by inciting popular indignation at welfare. Welfare reform became an
argument about why poor women were to blame for so much that was wrong with
America. No wonder the administration has been so reluctant to refuse even the
most draconian state requests for waivers. After 1994, of course, the Republican
Congress quickly snatched back the welfare issue, which the Clinton
administration has helped to heat up.

Ellwood thinks the diverse Republican efforts at welfare spending rollbacks,
work enforcement, benefit cuts, strict rules, and devolution to the states are
contradictory, without "shared conviction." I think he again misses
the point. These policy proposals are not mainly about the design of rational
interventions in social life. Rather, they continue, unmodulated by any liberal
compunctions, the political strategy begun by Clinton, of pointing to the
failures of poor women as an explanation for the cultural ruptures and economic
insecurities of contemporary American life.

And real welfare reform is less likely than ever.


Fox Piven is certainly right in suggesting that the Clinton rhetoric was
excessive and that it provided impetus and encouragement to some who favored
welfare cutoffs rather than progressive, work-oriented reform—I said so in
my article. I would add that the willingness of the President to grant waivers "that
he didn't like" added further momentum.

But Piven goes too far. The President invested virtually all of his
political capital in a health plan whose principal theme was ensuring universal
coverage. Compared to health care, administration talk about welfare was a tiny
blip in 1993 and 1994. Still Piven writes that it was "the mantra of
'welfare reform' that was used to usher in . . . Medicaid cuts." Most
political observers I have read believe the failure to enact welfare reform
early in the Clinton presidency contributed to the Republican sweep in 1994.
Talking about time limits did not lead to the Republican revolution. Nor did it
cause Governors Thompson and Engler and others to propose often extreme, yet
very popular changes in welfare in their high-benefit, formerly liberal states
long before the 1992 election.

Is it Piven's view that by waiting a few years, the more progressive reforms
that she favors would emerge? That was the argument used by welfare rights
advocates as they helped defeat both Nixon's and Carter's reform plans that look
very generous by today's standards. Liberal members of the House used a similar
refrain as they blocked immediate action on Clinton's welfare reform proposal in
the summer of 1994—waiting until 1995 would lead to a better result!
Perhaps the real problem with a serious intellectual focus on the failures of
welfare and the need for a work-oriented national welfare reform is not that it
came too early, but too late.

Piven is right about the popular indignation about welfare and the tendency
to blame the poor. She is wrong if she believes that sweeping these difficult
issues under the rug or angrily proclaiming the virtue of positions rejected by
most of the public will lead to "real" welfare reform.

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