The Wall Street Journal reminds us rather than the beginning of the end as the bill's many vocal critics charged it is much accurately described as Apocalypse Not.
Welfare reform turned 10 this week, and more remarkable than its near-total success is the near-total amnesia that seems to have gripped its one-time opponents.
When Bill Clinton signed the bill ending a federal entitlement to welfare, a leading liberal newspaper called it "nasty," "atrocious" and "odious"--adding with typical nuance that "the children will suffer the most." Three Clinton Administration officials resigned over the bill. Georgia Congressman John Lewis not too subtly raised the specter of fascism as he literally screamed on the House floor, "They're coming for the children. They're coming for the poor. They're coming for the sick, the elderly and the disabled." Even as sensible a social scientist as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan lost his head and called it "something approaching an apocalypse."
The real story has been apocalypse not. Welfare reform has worked so well that its success runs the risk of going almost unnoticed. Welfare rolls are down to about two million today from a peak of five million in 1995. The last time welfare caseloads were this low was 1970, when America had 100 million fewer citizens. But what about the children? The rate of black children living in poverty in America was more than 40% in 1996 and stands at 32% today, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the 25 years prior to welfare reform, that number had only briefly ever dipped below 40% and stood as high as 47% in 1980.
The late Senator Moynihan is famous for having said that culture, not politics, is the key to changing most human behavior, and that the job of politics is to help nudge the culture in the right direction. Welfare reform worked because it was rooted in that wisdom, and in a basic understanding of human incentives. Support life on the dole, or reward having multiple children without a husband, and any society will develop a culture of dependency. That is where the U.S. was headed under the liberal ethos that compassion means sparing Americans of their individual responsibility to work and provide for their families.