The Obama Administration has effectively gutted the work requirements of the bipartisan welfare reforms of 1996. In doing so, it is trampling on the central policy that made welfare reform work. The lesson for policymakers from those reforms was that good principles, good policy, and good results go hand in hand.
By requiring recipients of certain government welfare programs to work, look for work, or take job-training classes, the reforms connected sound moral reasoning to effective public policy: Policy should provide a safety net for those genuinely in need, but it shouldn’t treat people as incapable of helping themselves, nor should it enable and incentivize destructive behavior.
As Heritage senior fellow Robert Rector has explained, the work requirements that transformed welfare to workfare have been a hugely successful policy for moving people out of poverty and from dependency to self-sufficiency. After the reforms, welfare caseloads dropped by 50 percent while employment and earnings increased dramatically. As a result, child poverty fell, and black child poverty reached an all-time low.
Good intentions are not enough for a morally sound policy of assisting the poor; how we provide assistance is crucially important. Overall assistance should be holistic, oriented not solely at meeting a material need but at transforming lives to be responsible, productive, and independent. Government assistance shouldn’t enable and incentivize the behaviors that lead to poverty in the first place.
Policy shouldn’t create a safety net that functions as a poverty trap. Nor should it view the poor as burdens and nuisances to be managed and cared for. Rather, it should treat the poor as persons of inestimable dignity, full of potential, and capable of caring for themselves and making contributions to society. Asking welfare recipients to work and engage in other productive behaviors respects their dignity, potential, and capabilities.
Welfare programs should thus be structured in ways that encourage these productive activities, fostering norms of work, marriage, personal responsibility, and law-abidingness. They should also create expectations (through measures such as time limits) that recipients will one day successfully leave public assistance and be successful members of society.
As research has confirmed again and again, those who finish high school, get a job, and get married before bearing children virtually never fall into prolonged poverty. Climbing out of poverty frequently requires getting right on these same factors—acquiring work-related skills, settling down with a stable family, and finding employment. Welfare reforms should aim to incentivize these behaviors.
The liberal approach to poverty simply seeks ever more material resources—in the form of cash, food, and housing—that allows for the flouting of the very behaviors that would help individuals escape poverty. Enabling people to engage in self-destructive behavior is not a form of authentically caring for them. It’s a way of shirking our real moral responsibility.
The goal of any public assistance should be to get people back on their own two feet—providing short-term assistance when a crisis arises but not enabling long-term dependence.
Welfare policy should recognize that the person is more than a bundle of material needs. Americans are a generous people, but they want to know that recipients are doing what they can to move back to self-sufficiency.
Every piece of public policy has moral implications. Yet too often policy makers focus solely on nuts-and-bolts specifics and bottom-line outcomes while overlooking the moral dimensions of public policy. This is especially true when it comes to public assistance for the poor. Indeed, the lesson from welfare reform is that policy inspired by a sound moral vision can help produce the best nuts and bolts and thus secure the best outcomes.