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Several years ago, a stay-at-home mother who lived nearby unexpectedly lost her husband in a tragedy that shook her family to its core. This woman was a kind, generous neighbor, but she wasn’t well-educated and had always relied on her husband to provide steady income to support her family. When her husband passed away, the woman struggled to get by, eventually finding herself signing up for a variety of government programs meant to help her family get through an extremely difficult time.
One of the most important services the mother received was health care benefits provided by the state, which were essential in order to give her teenage daughter the treatments she needed to live a normal, healthy life. As time went on, the mother began finding occasional work opportunities but soon realized earning even a very modest income would make her ineligible to receive the health benefits she needed to support her child.
As the mother described it, she was “trapped” in poverty. If she tried to steadily improve her financial situation, she would lose the benefits she needed. If she did nothing at all, the government would continue to provide necessary government services while she worked “under the table” to support her child.
“I want to work,” I remember her telling me over and over again. “I just can’t, and no one working for the government is listening to me.”
Situations like this are far too common in the United States today. Millions of impoverished Americans need a temporary helping hand but can’t afford to move out of poverty without putting their family’s well-being at risk.
In 1996, a Republican-led Congress passed significant welfare reform that President Bill Clinton signed into law. These reforms made it possible for states to fix their broken welfare systems and help more people out of poverty.
The results speak for themselves. Since national welfare reform passed in the mid-1990s, roughly 9 million people have moved off of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, also known as welfare, rolls.
No matter how many states implement proven, successful welfare reforms, however, opponents of progress and innovation continue to drum up one odd excuse after another to convince the nation serious welfare reform isn’t needed.
In March, The Heartland Institute, a think tank we work for, released an update of its comprehensive welfare reform report card, which ranked each state’s welfare reform policies and outcomes. Some of the policies considered are whether states have adequate work requirements, time limits for receiving benefits, and sanctions on those who fail to meet legal requirements.
Heartland’s researchers found that time after time, when states implement these and other important welfare reforms, individuals escape poverty and become self-sufficient. When states become complacent and protecting bureaucratic systems emerges as the primary goal of a state government, millions become trapped in a cycle of poverty that’s difficult to escape from without assistance but also hard to leave because the programs create a growing dependency on government.
Many pundits, politicians, and special-interest groups around the nation don’t agree serious welfare reform—reform that helps those in need but also establishes limits that prevent dependency—is needed.
In Missouri, welfare reform opponents attacked attempts to improve what Heartland Institute researchers say is the worst welfare program in the nation by insisting simple reforms such as asking healthy welfare recipients to work or attend college in order to receive benefits will “hurt kids.”
In Wisconsin, Urban Milwaukee’s Bruce Thompson, a “data wonk,” attacked The Heartland Institute’s report for allegedly being biased for supporting policies Thompson says don’t work. In support of his claim, Thompson points to an alleged discrepancy in the report’s findings showing Wisconsin ranked very high (third in the nation) for its policies but very poor (50th) for its results. In other words, if Wisconsin’s policies, according to Heartland, are so great, then Wisconsin shouldn’t rank so poor for its policy outcomes.
What Thompson failed to tell his readers is that there are easy-to-understand reasons for the difference in rankings. First, as the study clearly explains, it ranks outcomes using data compiled after welfare reform was implemented nationally in 1996. By the time Congress finally put together solid welfare reforms, however, Wisconsin had already been using proven policies under the leadership of then-Gov. Tommy Thompson (R). This gives the illusion Wisconsin’s program is much less successful than it has actually been; it just started improving well before 1996.
Second, the rankings are based on progress relative to other states, not total numbers. Wisconsin consistently ranks as having one of the nation’s lowest poverty rates, something Thompson should know, considering his status as a “data wonk.”
Americans anywhere on the political spectrum want to help people move out of poverty, but some continue to allow their ideological commitments to stand in the way of proven solutions and progress. Only when people of all political persuasions look past their preconceived notions and toward the well-supported facts about which policies work will our nation make lasting advancements in the war against poverty.