Was Welfare Reform Worthwhile?

There 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 beginning.

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.

In 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.


Frances 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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