Whether a Millennial or Generation Xer, anyone under 40 may find it hard to believe that politicians from opposing parties can agree on anything. The idea that a Democratic President and Republican Congress can work together, let alone pass comprehensive reform, must seem unimaginable.
But this week marks the 20th anniversary of the bipartisan Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, termed welfare reform. Among other things, it replaced the old cash welfare entitlement system with the work-based Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. President Bill Clinton signed it on August 22, 1996 after it passed a Republican-controlled Congress. This bipartisan effort was not without controversy, but it ultimately led to a dramatic shift in how government supported poor families in America, focusing assistance on work rather than government hand-outs.
The result was a substantial increase in single mothers who worked and a decline in the number who received cash welfare from the government. At its peak in 1994, almost 60 percent of children in single mother families were receiving cash welfare. Today, it is less than 20 percent and the vast majority are better off financially with a working mother than one receiving welfare.
As Ron Haskins wrote in his 2006 book, passing welfare reform certainly wasn’t easy. It required hard work, trust, a willingness to listen, and ultimately compromise — political compromise that is largely absent from our political system today.
Scholars and policy experts will likely use PRWORA’s anniversary to debate the particulars of welfare reform; a debate that is healthy and worthwhile. But as we come together to remember this 20-year old law, let it also be a lesson about our current political environment and how it has ultimately failed the poor.
We have no shortage of ideas on how to reduce poverty, but the political will seems missing. Decades of research identifies unemployment, the breakdown of the family, and limited education as the prime contributors. Both sides generally agree, with a consensus plan for reducing poverty produced by the Brookings/AEI working group on poverty last fall a perfect example.
Yet, compromise has not translated to our federal legislators. Anti-poverty plans, such as the House Republicans “A Better Way” and the Republican Study Committee’s safety net reforms, were met with the typical partisan critique. Lacking was a bipartisan effort to bring ideas together from both sides and find consensus, similar to what was done with welfare reform 20 years ago.
Our presidential candidates leave little hope that things will change. Trump has offered almost nothing on the issue of poverty. And his economic plan if executed, could actually harm the economy, especially those at the bottom. On the other side, Clinton offers a laundry list of giveaways and government mandates that may satisfy her most progressive supporters, but will do little to reduce poverty. Absent from both is an understanding that the issues of the poor require consideration of good ideas from both sides of the aisle.
As we debate the strengths and weaknesses of welfare reform on its 20th anniversary, let’s also reflect on what its passage represents from a governing perspective. Can our elected officials put partisanship aside and compromise on efforts to help the poor? It happened 20 years ago, let’s hope that my generation can witness the same.