Why We Must Be Bold on Welfare Reform

Kay Coles James | March 11, 2018

(Photo: LWA/Dann Tardif Blend Images/Newscom)

(Daily Signal) – Washington is in a unique position to solve America’s welfare crisis for a very simple reason: Washington created it. The policy and programs it established a half-century ago have depleted people, obstructed their purpose, and extinguished their extraordinary possibilities.

The evidence of this failure is all around us. Being black and the daughter of a former welfare recipient, I know firsthand the unintended harm welfare has caused. That’s why much of what I am about to share relates to the African-American experience.

But this isn’t a problem specific to us. When it comes to welfare, the black community is merely America’s “canary in the coalmine.” What has happened to so many African-Americans can happen and is happening to any American subjected to the same failed liberal policies.

So while I will speak to the experience of the black community, I know the majority of Americans on welfare aren’t African-American. As a result, this appeal has relevance for all Americans, and it’s on their behalf that policymakers must confront and come to understand a few vitally important things.

First, the problem isn’t people: It’s policy.

I urge all policymakers to read “Slave Narratives From the Federal Writers’ Project,” easily accessible online and at the Library of Congress. In them are powerful stories demonstrating the strength and resilience of my people.

These narratives never fail to move me deeply, and the one that strikes me to my core is this: In the days, weeks, and months following Appomattox, emancipated African-Americans could be seen walking mile after mile. They weren’t fleeing their former owners: The crime of slavery had been ended, after all. No, they were searching, often in vain, for their family members who had been ripped from their embrace and sold to other slave owners.

I can’t even begin to imagine how traumatic it would be if someone took my husband, children, or grandchildren from me. It would be unspeakable under any circumstances, let alone for the purpose of being sold into slavery. Yet that’s exactly what happened so many times before Emancipation. No wonder, then, that many freed men and women walked huge distances, searching for their lost parents, siblings, spouses, and children. So strong is the value of family that this was the first thing they did when they had the freedom to do it.

With a hunger for the education they’d been denied, freed slaves also set up schools in churches, in homes, and—famously—under the Emancipation Oak that still stands on what became the campus of my alma mater, Hampton University. They honed the skills they learned on the plantation and in the workhouse too. And they got jobs—jobs that enabled them to support their families and build the future that has enabled African-Americans like me to pursue our dreams.

What they did was extraordinary. It’s a tale of survival, of family, of faith, and of indomitable determination. Those freed slaves and their children and grandchildren built businesses, colleges, churches, and communities, and they did it not only often without government help, but often in the face of government adversity known as Jim Crow.

This history is so important for policymakers to consider because it helps make sense of the harm done to the African-American community since then by liberal policies like welfare. Consider: Since the so-called War on Poverty was launched more than 50 years ago:

  • Our marriage rate has plummeted, and the number of out-of-wedlock births has soared.
  • Children are being raised without the security of an intact family or having ever even experienced parental marriage.
  • Fathers are routinely rejecting their responsibilities, increasing their children’s risk of living in poverty.
  • Nearly 1 million black boys and girls are being raised by a grandparent, often because their parents suffer from drug abuse, have passed away, or are in prison.

It’s long been said that family is the very first Department of Health and Human Services, but in recent decades, that bedrock of our community has been broken almost as badly as it was during the days of slavery.

As Kim Holmes of The Heritage Foundation wrote in his book “Rebound”: “The welfare state … substitute[d] a check for a father, a social worker for a caring mother or grandmother, and a slew of civil rights organizations for the neighborhood church.”

My great-grandmother was enslaved, and I wonder what she would think of America today. She experienced the heartbreak of families being torn apart and sold to distant plantations.

  • Would she be able to understand why so many children are now growing up with only one parent?
  • Would she have any tolerance for all the fathers who are turning their backs on their responsibilities and walking away?
  • Would she have any patience for the notion that it’s “politically incorrect” (whatever that really means) to say a man and woman should be married if they’re having a child?
  • And would she have any doubts as to why so many fatherless teens seek in street gangs the sense of belonging they never experienced at home?

The answers are no, no, no, and no. These dysfunctions are the result of policy choices this nation has made, not the people on whom they’ve been inflicted.

That’s why the focus on welfare reform is so important. Under the so-called enlightened approach launched by the Great Society liberals, more money is doled out to people who (1) aren’t married, (2) have children, and (3) don’t work.

The misguided compassion of this liberal policy has so many unintended consequences. It deprives millions of children of the love and security they’d get from the two people they need most: their mom and dad. (Photo: Martina Ferrari Westend61/Newscom)

Who could come up with such an idea? The kind, it seems, who apparently just couldn’t see that doing this would destroy two of the most effective defenses against poverty: work and marriage.

Instead, this approach rewards people for not working, for having kids out of wedlock, and for staying single. And guess what it’s produced? More of exactly what we’re paying for: unemployment, out-of-wedlock births, and single-parent families.

Now, ask yourself: What if I took that kind of “welfare” policy and implemented it in your family? If I said to your sons, “Sweetie, you don’t have to work; I’ll take care of everything,” and if I said to your daughters, “Sugar, you go ahead and have as many babies as you want; I’ll give you more money to take care of them,” what do you think your family would be like in 20 years?

I’ll tell you: Your sons would be lying at home and not working, your daughters would be having kids out of wedlock, and your family would be a whole lot poorer.

Is that what you want for your family? I don’t think so. Then why do we allow the government to do to other families what we wouldn’t want for our own?

The misguided compassion of this liberal policy has so many unintended consequences. It’s destroying hopes and dreams. It’s allowing despair-inducing welfare to take the place of pride-fueling work. It’s depriving millions of children of the love and security they’d get from the two people they need most: their mom and dad. And it’s causing the spark to go out for whole generations.

This is wrong. It’s gone on too long. And it must be stopped.

Fixing this won’t be easy, but with an empowerment agenda it can be done. By empowerment, I mean replacing dependence with independence, hopelessness with hope, and poverty with the power to realize our dreams. And so I’d like to offer policymakers five solutions for an empowerment agenda that will make their efforts so worthwhile.

1.  Reinstill “achiever values” by putting a greater emphasis on empowerment and work.

America must return to what Dr. Carl Ellis Jr. calls “achiever values.” When I was a child, I watched my mother board a bus for work in the cold morning hours and return well after sunset, tired but ready to care for her own family. Her daily routine taught my brothers and me the dignity of honest work and the satisfaction of supporting her family.

Contrast that with today. We’ve spent $28 trillion on a dizzying array of government programs for poor and low-income Americans that promote non-achiever values, and millions of Americans are now dependent on the handouts of others. That’s why then-President Barack Obama’s order letting states waive the 1996 work requirement was so wrong—and why a strong work requirement is so important now.

I, of course, know that the purpose of welfare is to help people when they fall on hard luck. But shouldn’t that also mean that its goal is to help people get past those hard-luck stretches so they can get back on their feet and once again provide for their families? Of course it should, and work does exactly that.

That’s why The Heritage Foundation has long called for welfare to be a work-based system, not a one-way handout. Nine out of 10 Americans agree, but today work is almost absent from the welfare system.

We can fix that by strengthening the work requirements in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and earned income tax credit programs and extending them to food stamps too. (A bill from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, S.1290/H.R. 2832, would tackle both; a bill from Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., H.R. 2996, is a robust food stamp work requirement in standalone legislation.)

Bottom line: If you’re not too young or too old, not physically or mentally disabled, then you should be working. You need to be working. Not for us and not just for the Treasury, but for you, for your kids, and for your future.

2.  Stop destroying the family.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late four-term Democratic senator from New York, absolutely nailed it when he said:

[T]here is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future—that community asks for and gets chaos.

He was right: Our policies have profoundly undermined marriage by reducing support when both parents are in the home. If a single mom on public assistance marries the father of her child, guess what happens to the support she’s been receiving? It gets cut—sharply.

That’s why these policies are commonly referred to as marriage penalties. They literally and very effectively penalize mothers and fathers who get married. No surprise: They’ve caused millions of single parents to realize the smartest thing they can do is stay single.

This is more than a matter of family values. It’s about valuing family, and that’s why it’s so important that you eliminate the marriage penalties now embedded in welfare policy.

We’ve talked about ending these marriage penalties for a long time. Now, for the first time, we’ve got a serious policy solution to start doing that, proposed by The Heritage Foundation. In Congress, Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., is taking the lead on making our idea a legislative reality.

3.  Promote transparency about the real cost and effectiveness of the welfare state.

I mentioned earlier that government has spent over $28 trillion on welfare programs, but do you know how much it now spends each year? The answer is a stunning $1.1 trillion. Just imagine the sticker shock if every American knew. Maybe that’s the reason policymakers and the American public don’t get this information through the annual budget process.

This is a real problem. Without honest and accurate information, lawmakers and their constituents are handicapped in their ability to press for the rational policy reform that’s long overdue.

That’s why The Heritage Foundation is calling for presidential budgets to report on welfare spending in its totality. We also want the administration to release data on the actual aggregate benefits being received by individuals on welfare.

Just as important, Washington should be paying for results, not merely for process. Today, government programs generally fund services rather than the outcomes that are needed. If any business operated this way, it would soon be bankrupt. (Perhaps that’s why the U.S. federal government is more than $22 trillion in debt?)

Instead, taxpayer funds should be going only to programs that actually are delivering the outcomes—such as job placement—that they promise. And the administration should be reporting on such outcomes in detail, so that policymakers can assess which programs deserve continued funding and which should be replaced with more effective alternatives.

4.  Be bold, and don’t back down.

When I had the privilege of serving as Virginia’s secretary of health and human resources, we passed statewide welfare reform. This was before Congress passed Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and it was against fierce resistance from the left and the media. But we did it, and we learned some important lessons that might be of value.

First, our paramount focus was to help people. Our reform policy was crafted by a 40-member Commission on Citizen Empowerment that included many current and former welfare recipients. Those fine Virginians were uncompromising. They knew firsthand how destructive welfare is, and they pushed us to enact the most conservative reforms anyone had ever seen.

Second, we took on the left and beat them at their own game. We assembled a war room where we not only responded to their attacks, but also anticipated and launched quite a few of our own. We recruited powerful advocates in all the affected communities.

We went across the state to spread the word, and we told the true stories of welfare’s impact, stories that were more heartbreaking and compassionate than anything any liberal opponent ever offered. We shared those stories throughout Virginia—with or without the media’s help.

Last but by no means least, we didn’t take “no” for an answer. Sure, the left tried to stop us. They even defeated all of our bills during the first legislative session. But we came back in the next one. Gov. George Allen promised—not threatened, promisedthat he’d make their votes against welfare reform the No. 1 issue in the upcoming election, and liberals folded like a house of cards.

The result was a package of workfare, learnfare, and child support enforcement measures that had an immediate and positive result. According to an independent analysis by Virginia’s version of the Government Accountability Office, the reform enabled welfare caseloads to drop by “nearly 50 percent.” It also resulted in “a strong increase in the average percent of recipient resources that is from income and a strong decrease in the average percent of recipient resources that is from [welfare] payments.”

Importantly, our reform in Virginia also achieved budgetary savings. In fact, the same happened at the federal level. Thanks to the 1996 legislation, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is the only welfare program in which spending has been under control over the past two decades.

And all this happened despite the Congressional Budget Office, which didn’t believe reform would generate savings. Had conservatives listened to the CBO 20 years ago, there never would have been a welfare reform, but Congress—backed by the analysis of Robert Rector at The Heritage Foundation and others—had the courage to say the CBO was wrong.

Bottom line: If you’re not too young or too old, not physically or mentally disabled, then you should be working. (Photo: Mike Kemp Blend Images/Newscom)

History has proven us correct. Work requirements reap savings in the long run. Just as we saw in Virginia, enabling welfare recipients to find work leads to fewer people depending on welfare and cost savings for taxpayers.

What that means is welfare reform works:

  • It replaces dependence with independence.
  • It enables welfare recipients to become workforce participants.
  • It restores pride, self-respect, and personal responsibility.
  • Most of all, it heals and helps the most vulnerable parents and children among us.

But I don’t need empirical evidence to tell me that welfare reform is right. I know it from my own personal experience, and that leads me to my last piece of advice for policymakers.

5.  Remain focused on the remarkable progress that can be achieved.

In light of all the harm African-Americans have suffered from liberal welfare policy, you might think I’d be pessimistic about what the future holds for the black community. But I’m not. As angry as I am, I’m also filled with hope about what the future can and, I pray, will bring to our people and our nation.

The first reason is simple: I have faith in God, in the hope that is America, and in the human spirit. I don’t look at people and think they’re incapable of taking care of themselves or of making the right decisions. Not at all. I look at all people, no matter their age, race, gender, income, or religion, as having the vast possibilities that come from being made in the image of God.

I’m not just convinced every child has these possibilities; I’ve seen it. Spend even just a little time with 5-year-olds and you’ll see it too. They are smart. They are so creative. They are positive. And they have boundless energy.

Since all of God’s people are born with vast possibilities for growth, fulfillment, and success, what they are crying out for is an opportunity: an opportunity to grow up healthy and safe, to be nurtured by their family’s love, to study and learn, and to pursue whatever direction their dreams and talents take them.

It’s simple: If given the opportunity, every child truly can grow up (as the popular toast goes) to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, and their communities will be better, richer, and more peaceful as a result.

So I call on policymakers to pause in their work and just imagine what that America would be like.

  • Imagine an America where civil society flourishes, life is protected, and children grow up with the love and protection of a whole family.
  • Imagine an America where every parent has the opportunity to experience the pride of providing and being a role model for their children.
  • Imagine an America where every child—every single onehas equal access to an excellent education.
  • Imagine an America where liberty, equality, and opportunity aren’t just the gifts we inherited. They’re the endowment we pass on.

That’s the America we need. It’s the America we can build.

Policymakers can achieve this with an empowerment agenda. They can save lives from failed liberal policies, and they can make it possible for millions of Americans to realize their dreams.

All it takes is a willingness to take the bold action that America needs.