Lillie Harden was a 32-year-old mother of three from Little Rock, Ark., when Bill
Clinton met her at a governors' panel on reforming welfare in 1986. Harden had
collected welfare for two years before finding work and had come to speak about
her experience. Clinton asked her what was best about being off welfare. Her
reply: "When my boy goes to school and they say, 'What does your mama do for a
living?' he can give an answer."
Ten years later, when Clinton was in the White House, he invited Harden to join
him as he signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation
Act of 1996 welfare reform into law. In his remarks, Clinton recalled her
answer of a decade earlier, and added: "I have never forgotten that."
For all that Clinton got wrong, welfare reform was one thing he ended up getting
very right. He had vetoed two previous reform bills passed by the
Republican-controlled Congress, and when the House and Senate came back with a
third bill, liberal pressure for another veto was intense. But political
strategist Dick Morris warned Clinton that a third veto could cost him the 1996
election, and so, pronouncing it a "historic opportunity to do what is right," he
signed the bill.
The chorus of outrage from the left was deafening. Marian Wright Edelman,
chairman of the Children's Defense Fund, warned that Clinton's signature would
"leave a moral blot on his presidency and on our nation." Senator Patrick Leahy
of Vermont denounced the bill as "anti-family, anti child, and mean-spirited."
Hugh Price, head of the National Urban League, declared that "Washington has
decided to end the War on Poverty and begin a war on children." Ted Kennedy
labeled the new law "legislative child abuse." Daniel Patrick Moynihan went so
far as to call it "the most brutal act of social policy we have known since
Over and over it was said that welfare reform would wreak social devastation,
throwing vast numbers of people, including a million children, into poverty.
Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey fretted that poor children would be
reduced to "begging for money, begging for food, and even . . . engaging in
prostitution." Peter Edelman, the husband of Marian Wright Edelman and an
assistant secretary of health and human services, resigned in protest and
condemned the new law in a long article "The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has
Done" in The Atlantic. It predicted, among other things, "more malnutrition
and more crime, increased infant mortality, and increased drug and alcohol abuse
. . . increased family violence and abuse against children and women." All in
all, he concluded, this "terrible legislation" would do "serious injury to
It did none of those things.
What it did do was end the condescending attitude that the poor were incapable
of improving their situation, and that "compassion" consisted of supplying money
indefinitely to women who had children, but no husbands or jobs. That approach
had lured millions into lives of dependency, subsidized an explosion of
fatherlessness, and infected whole neighborhoods with a bias against work and
marriage. The bill that Clinton signed replaced that deadly condescension with
respect. For the first time, welfare would come with strings attached: work
requirements and time limits designed to encourage responsibility and
The results speak for themselves. Since peaking in 1994, the nation's welfare
caseload plummeted by 60 percent, falling from 5 million families to fewer than 2
million. Welfare recipients went to work in droves. The employment rate among
those who had been likeliest to slip into long-term dependence young mothers
who had never been married soared by nearly 100 percent. And as more and more
mothers left welfare and got jobs, more and more of their children were lifted
out of poverty.
Far from throwing a million kids into the streets, welfare reform sent the child
poverty rate tumbling, from 20.8 percent in 1995 to 17.8 percent in 2004. In
black communities, where welfare had done the most damage, the decline was even
more dramatic. "Black child poverty plummeted at an unprecedented rate, falling
to 30.0 percent in 2001," Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation recently
testified before Congress. "In 2001, despite the recession, the poverty rate for
black children was at the lowest point in national history."
Not everything has been reformed. There is clearly more work to do. The 1996 law
affected only the basic welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children
(AFDC). But dozens of other welfare entitlements, such as food stamps and
Medicaid, still operate under the old rules. And while the out-of-wedlock birth
rate is no longer skyrocketing, it is still far too high as are the poverty
and social chaos it begets.
But there is no disputing that welfare reform has been a shining success. Ten
years later, it is clear that the Republican Congress that passed the law and the
Democratic president who signed it turned out to be truer champions of the poor
than those who inveighed against it so hysterically.