Senate Democrats who pride themselves on being advocates for the poor are blocking our best weapon in the war on poverty—welfare reform.
In April, Democrats used a parliamentary procedure to prevent a Senate vote on the welfare reauthorization bill that would build on the tremendous success of the 1996 welfare reforms in getting people off welfare and out of poverty. Today there is no disputing the success of the 1996 law, despite initial opposition from a range of groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Charities USA.
Thanks to the landmark 1996 reforms, millions of families that once were dependent on a welfare check now look forward to the independence of a paycheck. For progress to continue, the 1996 law needs to be reauthorized. Already expired, a series of extensions are keeping it alive at least until the end of the month. Passing the reauthorization with minor adjustments now will ensure that current welfare recipients and their families have the chance for a better life.
But on April 1, Democrats, showing that they are more interested in election-year grandstanding than building on our nation’s most successful antipoverty program, blocked a Senate floor vote on reauthorization by piling on unrelated “message” amendments. Democrats also blocked, as part of the Senate JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Strength, or FSC/ETI) bill, renewal of the Work Opportunity Tax Credit for businesses employing welfare recipients. And Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) refused to allow a conference committee on the faith-based charity bill, which passed both houses overwhelmingly last year.
Indeed, many of the liberal senators who are blocking welfare reauthorization also opposed the 1996 bill, asserting that by requiring time limits on cash assistance for those capable of working we would throw millions of welfare mothers and their children onto the streets. Far from cruel, the bill freed millions of recipients from poverty after 30 years of the old welfare system that tricked those needing assistance into relying on a meager government handout instead of offering them help to land their first job.
Work works. Thanks to the welfare-to-work program, national welfare caseloads are less than half what they were just eight years ago, and 2.8 million families have been lifted out of poverty. Remarkably, overall welfare caseloads are continuing to decline even with the uncertain economy of the last several years. Today, 2.3 mil-lion fewer children live in poverty, including 700,000 African-American children. The national poverty rate has dropped from 13.7 percent to 12.1 percent, and child poverty has fallen from 20.5 percent to 16.7 percent.
How much does that first job mean to a welfare family? A former welfare recipient and single mother who is now off welfare, married and working for a CVS pharmacy, came to Capitol Hill during the Senate debate to share her story. When she received her first paycheck after years on welfare, her children piled into her car wanting to go to the supermarket with her. Why? They wanted to go through the checkout line and proudly watch their mother pay with cash instead of food stamps.
Unfortunately, most current welfare families don’t have a paycheck. Ironically, due to our success in cutting welfare caseloads by more than half, many states now have no work participation requirement for their welfare recipients. Therefore, states have no incentive to help the two million people still in the system find work.
The reauthorization ensures we continue the progress of the welfare-to-work program. By increasing both the work participation requirement and the number of hours recipients work, the bill will help families improve their earnings and raise their standard of living.
In addition, the reauthorization makes good on our commitment in the 1996 law to strengthen families. The negative impact of family break-down has been most severe in low-income communities. Indeed, single-parent families are five times more likely to be in poverty than two-parent families. Yet the old welfare system discouraged welfare mothers from marrying, often against their best interests and those of their children.
A wealth of research shows that marriage helps children do better on every level. Children in two-parent homes are about half as likely to be physically abused or suffer physical and emotional neglect as children in single-parent homes. They also have higher grades and self-esteem, aspire to go to college, are half as likely to drop out of high school, and are less likely to engage in drug abuse and other destructive behavior. Precisely why the government should encourage healthy marriages.
Promoting healthy marriages and responsible fatherhood is the next crucial step in welfare reform. The reauthorization provides $300 million annually for voluntary programs that promote healthy marriages, including education and counseling for young couples considering marriage. It also devotes $75 million annually to fatherhood programs.
Continuing the progress of welfare reform is a key objective in Republicans’ “compassionate conservatism” agenda, an approach to fighting poverty that strengthens families and empowers people to transform their lives. This successful approach to fighting poverty is our answer to the failed welfare state.
But as we see in the current fight, old habits die hard. It would be a shame if we were prevented from passing legislation that would genuinely help those in need just so one party can score political points.