In the long history of anti-poverty policy, Americans have never quite agreed on the greatest danger facing needy families. Is it poverty, with its deprivation and grinding hardships? Or is it dependency, which erodes self-esteem and the ideal of self-reliance?
Five years ago this month Congress passed a historic welfare law which, with its tough work requirements and time-limited benefits, plainly said that dependency is the greater evil. Since that time, dependency has tumbled dramatically. Welfare caseloads have fallen by more than half, and poor single mothers have entered the job market in unprecedented numbers. Many factors were at work, including a strong economy and government work subsidies, but experts generally give the 1996 law substantial credit.
What of the other evil -- poverty itself? The nation's overall poverty rate has edged down gradually during this time, but an important new study demonstrates that poverty rates among the target population of welfare reform -- working single mothers -- have not come down at all. In fact the depth of poverty for these families -- the amount of money they would need to climb above the poverty line -- has grown greater. For every dollar these families gained by working, they lost more than a dollar in food stamps, cash assistance or other government aid. ...
The first five years of welfare reform have produced a historic shift: They have converted millions of families from the welfare poor to the working poor. That is a sort of victory in a society that respects work and self-reliance. But it is only half a victory. The next chapter should make sure that these families are actually better off for their efforts.
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