As welfare reform turns 20, Catholics discuss its legacy

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Welfare reform was one of the biggest United States legislative events of the 1990s, but after 20 years what is its legacy from the standpoint of Catholic social teaching?

Catholic policy experts gave differing responses to the program.

"It's complicated," said John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University.

Meanwhile, John D. Mueller, director of the Economics and Ethics program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., thought it a "success, in general."

August 22 marked the 20th anniversary of the passage of welfare reform, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

The new program – Temporary Assistance to Needy Families – was a major overhaul of the previous one, Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Democratic President Bill Clinton signed into law the bill passed by both houses of a Republican Congress.

Among the biggest changes of the 1996 law were the federal government delegating block grants to the states and letting them administer assistance, and the addition of work requirements for families receiving government assistance.

The supposed reason behind the reform was to move Americans from welfare to work, and ensure that people wouldn't take advantage of the system by staying on it long-term, unnecessarily.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops initially opposed the 1996 law, in large part because it blocked legal immigrants from receiving welfare assistance. After the program was re-authorized in Congress in 2010, the conference released a statement on welfare reform expressing their support of and criticisms of certain aspects of the policy.

One of its successes in the last 20 years was that "in reality and in the public mind, it connected assistance to work, which is a good thing," John Carr said. "Work is an expression of our dignity."

However, he added, welfare reform and its work requirements "works a lot better in a booming economy than in a recession," when good jobs are more scarce and harder to find.

John Médaille, an adjunct professor of theology at the University of Dallas who has authored books on business and economics, argued that welfare reform has not been a success in promoting flourishing two-parent families.

In many cases today, he said, both parents are working during the day thus inflicting a "split" on the family life.  

"It doesn't seem to encourage, economically, the formation of strong families, and [it] forces mothers into the workplace," he said.

A key question, he asked, is "are families at the bottom end of the scale stronger or weaker than they were before welfare reform?"

"I certainly see no evidence that they're stronger and a lot of evidence that they're weaker," he said.

Carr agreed that welfare reform "works less well for those at the very bottom, who have the most problems, obstacles, in their path to the workforce, and for children in those situations."

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A good economy must be built around work, a decent safety net, and opportunity, he insisted, adding that moving forward the conversation must especially focus on work, like job training and the creation of jobs that can sustain families.

"Those who can work, should work, and they ought to be able to make a living that supports a family," he said, "and those who can't work for a variety of reasons ought to be able to live in dignity, and that's where a safety net comes in."

From the standpoint of Catholic teaching on subsidiarity, welfare reform was indeed a success, John D. Mueller, director of the Economics and Ethics program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., told CNA.

Mueller defined subsidiarity as "the notion that each function of society should be undertaken by the social unit which is best suited to answer" a particular problem. Welfare reform, he said, "did encourage the sorts of hierarchy of ways of meeting needs" rather than a simple top-down federal approach.

"It got people off welfare into jobs, which had been doubted," he added, because the Earned Income Tax Credit also came along at the same time. This tax credit was contingent upon people working and so was a way of "helping people help themselves" rather than something that would "make them less employable."

Carr agreed that the reform "has been carried out in more flexible ways at the state level," which is a "good thing."

Both Médaille and Mueller agreed that welfare alone is not the best long-term solution for poverty. It makes "disadvantaged" persons "less employable," Mueller said, while according to Médaille, "welfare creates dependency."

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In that sense of avoiding large-scale dependency on the government, Médaille said, "the motives were good" for enacting welfare reform.

Its flaw, however, was that it did not address the big questions of whether there are "enough jobs for all" and whether existing jobs "allow for the formation of families," he said, which would involve true solutions to the problem of increasing welfare rolls.

"On both of those counts, the system we have fails," he said. Jobs in areas of real need – infrastructure, social, cultural – are not being created "to bring the unemployment rate down to its frictional levels," he said, and it is here that government could intervene and be the "employer of last resort" by creating jobs to build infrastructure, for example.

Instead, businesses are content to create low-wage jobs where workers receive government assistance on the side, he continued. Thus, the available jobs in the economy do not pay the income and benefits necessary to sustain a family, and welfare becomes a "subsidy to the rich," he said.

"Those are the kind of issues I think reform ought to be dealing with," Médaille insisted. "Instead of being the consumer of last resort, let [government] be the employer of last resort."

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