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As published in the Wall Street Journal, August 1, 2002
In August 1996, President Bill Clinton finally signed a bill that fulfilled his campaign promise to end welfare as we knew it. That bill, shaped by a Republican Congress, was one of the most significant and successful pieces of social policy enacted in the last half century. Since it was signed, welfare rolls have plummeted by more than 50%. Child poverty is at its lowest point in more than 20 years, and poverty levels for black children are at their lowest recorded level ever. More importantly, it codified the principle that welfare ought to be a helping hand, not a handout. As the Senate debates the reauthorization of this landmark legislation, which expires Sept. 30, it is worth considering the lessons learned and the necessary steps yet to be taken to combat poverty in America.
There is no doubt a growing economy is essential to the continued success of welfare reform, and reforming the tax code to ensure a rising economic tide is essential. But social policy is even more consequential in the poverty debate. Welfare reform succeeded because it corrected many of the perverse incentives that created dependency and because a rapidly growing economy made it possible for former welfare recipients to find work. And although welfare reform took advantage of states' success in reducing welfare rolls, the federal reform was not simple devolution. It mandated that states achieve real welfare-to-work goals while providing them with the necessary flexibility to do so.
President Bush would like to build on those twin principles of accountability and flexibility. He would increase the flexibility given to states by allowing them to develop their own programs for job training, childcare, and the like. The president's requirement that we keep welfare recipients working -- increasing both the percentage of recipients who must work and the amount of time that they must work -- sets a goal for which each state can aim.
Legislators should keep in mind that there is more to welfare reform than just economics: The moral and spiritual conditions of the recipients must be considered. Therefore, we salute one of the most significant -- if controversial -- elements of the president's proposal. "My administration," the president said, "will give unprecedented support to strengthening marriage." This was a goal of the original welfare reform act; unfortunately, few states worked toward it. But we can think of no more effective way of reducing the number of poor people -- especially poor children -- than reducing the number of single-parent families. Consider the numbers:
Poverty afflicts nearly half of mother-only families, but fewer than one in 10 married-couple families. Among minorities, the numbers are even more striking. A black child living with a single mother is 4.5 times more likely to live in poverty than a black child with married parents; for Hispanics, the likelihood of being impoverished is three times greater. Clearly, there is a relationship between marriage and escaping poverty. And the benefits of marriage expand beyond simple economic well-being, especially for children. Growing up in two-parent families makes it less likely that children will commit violent crimes, be imprisoned, have a child out of wedlock, or drop out of school.
The president is not suggesting that we force welfare recipients to marry. He is suggesting that we educate people about the benefits of marriage. Premarital education programs can help couples prepare for marriage; counseling programs can help marriages in trouble. The president was right to say that "building and preserving families are not always possible," but "they should always be our goal." His ideas are a textbook example of compassionate conservatism, and the Senate should adopt them.
Mr. Bennett, a former secretary of education, and Mr. Kemp, a former secretary of housing and urban development, are co-directors of Empower America.