Welfare reform poised for resurgence

In 1996, Eric Clapton was handed a best-record Grammy Award for his hit “Change the World.” Congress caught Clapton’s spirit and changed America, if not the world, by passing a massive overhaul of federal welfare policies.In 1996, Eric Clapton was handed a best-record Grammy Award for his hit “Change the World.” Congress caught Clapton’s spirit and changed America, if not the world, by passing a massive overhaul of federal welfare policies.

But while Clapton continues to work at his craft, winning four Grammys since 1996, Congress has pretty much left welfare alone, mostly just renewing existing welfare programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which was extended for six more months in September.

Never has an issue fallen off the public-policy radar screen so rapidly and so permanently. The Harris Poll has documented this trend with its annual survey asking Americans to identify the “most important issue for the government to address.” In 1995, when the drums were beating for welfare reform, 16 percent of Americans saw welfare as the top issue. From 2000 on, just 1 to 3 percent of Americans attached comparable importance to the issue.

You might say that most Americans felt that congressional reforms solved the problem, but that seems doubtful in light of a key nationwide survey conducted in early 2001 by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Foundation and Harvard. The study found that only half of all Americans were even aware of any major change in welfare laws in the prior five years.

Even among those who claimed awareness, their knowledge was sometimes sketchy. Just 61 percent of the most “knowledgeable” thought reforms were going well. So roughly only a third of Americans knew of the 19965 reforms and thought they headed us in the right direction.

But new reforms by Congress have been slow coming. Why? Well, for one thing, welfare reformers get pummeled as meanies who persecute the poor. Few members of Congress want to be near the searing blowtorch of heat that welfare reform generates. And with the recent recession, the flame would have burned even hotter.

So as long as members of Congress weren’t seeing polls showing large percentages of Americans clamoring for welfare reform, they seemed happy to leave welfare in a state of benign neglect. But that may be about to change.

Several trends point to a potential resurgence in welfare as a salient public-policy issue. Chief among the trends is the new strategy of linking welfare reform to moral and value-laden issues.

Some earlier reforms were able to secure funding for abstinence education, but thus far, funding for abstinence programs has been very limited. Expect to see welfare reforms ask for much more.

Another new value-laden welfare-reform initiative focuses on strengthening marriages. Reformers say strong marriages are a defense against women’s reliance on welfare. So expect to see efforts to earmark a percentage of welfare funding to premarital counseling and pre-divorce counseling.

One proposal calls for 2 percent initially, rising to 10 percent over several years.

This proposal would likely earn broad public support.

A 2002 Opinion Research Corp. poll asked 1,016 American adults: Thinking about children in low-income, single-parent households, how important do you think it is for their overall well-being that their parents get and stay married? Sixty-seven percent responded that such a move would be “very important” and 19 percent said “somewhat important.” Although another Pew poll conducted in 2002 suggested broad opposition to a general government initiative promoting marriage, a campaign focused more narrowly on welfare recipients would be popular.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.