1990: Welfare Then and Now

Well before Bill Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we know it,” the first issue of The American Prospect included a long article by Kathryn Edin and myself [see “The Real Welfare Problem,” Spring 1990] urging liberals to rethink welfare. Our argument rested on two facts. First, both Edin's research and national surveys showed that single mothers seldom survived on welfare alone. Most made ends meet by getting additional money under the table. Second, this was no recent development. Welfare benefits had never been adequate to support a family. Politically, we argued, a society in which most middle-class mothers worked was unlikely to offer poor mothers enough money to support a family without working. The alternative was to increase the rewards to work -- with a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers with children, plus subsidies for child care and health expenses.

Two years later, Clinton was elected and set out to end welfare and “make work pay.” But while he persuaded Congress to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit in 1993, his plan for universal health insurance failed, and welfare reform was postponed. Republican control of Congress in 1994 produced a far more punitive approach. In the law that Clinton reluctantly signed in 1996, job guarantees disappeared, work requirements became more stringent, and subsidies more meager. Instead of creating a new regime that ensured working mothers adequate income, the new welfare law seemed mainly concerned with dismantling the supports. Most liberals, including me, thought this was a mistake.

Fortunately, we were too pessimistic [see “Liberal Lessons From Welfare Reform,” July 2002]. The number of families receiving welfare fell from almost 4.5 million in 1996 to 2 million in June 2003. But poverty among single mothers fell from 42 percent in 1996 to 33 percent in 2000. Declines in the welfare rolls left states with more cash to subsidize child care and expand Medicaid coverage. Unemployment rose from 4 percent in 2000 to 6 percent in 2003, but even then the poverty rate among single mothers only rose from 33 percent to 36 percent. In 1994, when unemployment was also 6 percent, poverty among single mothers had been 44 percent.

The spread of single motherhood has also slowed dramatically. Between 1980 and 1995, the percentage of families with children headed by a married couple fell by almost 0.5 percentage points a year. The hourly wages of poorly paid men rose faster than inflation between 1995 and 2003. Children's chances of growing up with both of their biological parents are probably still falling, but not as fast as one might have expected before 1996. The lesson, I think, is that the old welfare system was so awful that even the relatively punitive reforms enacted in 1996 made the average single mother a little better off. Of course, a less punitive system would probably have improved her lot even more.

Christopher Jencks is the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.