December 04, 2002
Doug Besharov on Welfare Reform

Mark Kleiman has a pointer to Doug Besharov's truly excellent Public Interest article on welfare reform. As a liberal, I have to say that Mark is wrong in his claim that it is "unpleasant reading for either liberals or conservatives." It's very pleasant reading: for a number of reasons--a strong economy that meant that TANF gave us twice as many dollares-per-welfare-recipient to spend after 1995 than in the 1980s or early 1990s, sensible application of the workfare rules, some excellent state-level policy initiatives, and some luck--we have dodged the bullet that might have given us a full-fledged welfare reform disaster in the late 1990s. Now we have to figure out what to do next in order to make welfare reform a success--not just a non-failure.

For welfare reform to be a success, it will have to improve the long-run lifetime opportunities for the children of America's poor. It's not enough simply to shrink the welfare roles and declare victory.


Here's a piece that won't make pleasant reading for either liberals or conservatives.

Besharov -- who more or less counts as a welfare "hawk" but who always gets his facts and arguments straight and who actually knows and cares about the plight of poor people -- demonstrates that the "welfare reform" movement culminating in the replacement of AFDC by TANF accounts for only about a third of the decline in the welfare rolls. The balance he attributes to improved economic conditions and expanded benefits for poor working families.

The humanitarian disaster predicted by the liberals didn't happen, Besharov says, but the changes made a very large number of poor people even poorer. And while the change in welfare offices to a "jobs-first" culture is real, the time limits and work requirements have been mostly bluff, for good administrative and human reasons. Now that the people who were easy to move into the labor market have mostly moved, and with the 90s boom only a fond memory, futher shrinking the caseloads is going to be hard work, and the states probably won't do it.

In the meantime, all those benefits for poor working families are extending disincentives to work and marriage well into the middle third of the income distribution, and vastly expanding the potential voting constituency for further strengthening the social safety net. (Besharov is more convinced than I am that the latter effect is a bad thing.) The last Congress punted on the reauthorization of TANF, so it's going to be high on the agenda of the new Congress whether Lott, DeLay, and Rove want it there or not.

Reading Besharov's sober discussion of how hard all this is going to be makes John DiIulio's account of the childish level of domestic policy discourse in the Bush White House even more depressing. I guess we will now get to see whether "compassionate conservatism" actually has any content or not. Don't bet the ranch on it.

Posted by DeLong at December 04, 2002 10:16 AM | Trackback

Email this entry
Email a link to this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):


I agree and that's just the kind of thing the Democrats should be doing instead of sucking up to their doners and the White House - creating policy alternatives. And then they have to tell folks what they're going to get out of that policy and tell the same story all across the country.

Posted by: Michael on December 5, 2002 08:48 AM
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?