Recent Welfare Reforms Must Continue

Mar 20, 2002
By CONGRESSMAN JOE WILSON This spring, Congress will be dealing with the reauthorization of the historic welfare reforms made in 1996. During my 17-year tenure in the S.C. Senate, I fought for elevating those on welfare out of poverty, and I am eager to work with my colleagues on Capitol Hill and President Bush. In unveiling his recommendations, the president said: "We must never be content with islands of despair in the midst of a nation of promise. We want all Americans to believe in the potential of their own lives and the promise of their own country." Twenty years ago, another great president expressed the need to change an already crumbling institution, saying, "We must always ask: is government working to liberate and empower the individual? Is it creating incentives for people to produce, save, invest and profit from legitimate risks and honest toil? Or does it seek to compel, command and coerce people into submission and dependence?" Our government had been for decades moving toward the latter, through a failed system that trapped millions of Americans in a cycle of dependence. In 1996, President Reagan's vision was finally realized when the Republicans in Congress succeeded in passing welfare reforms, easily now seen as the greatest change in social policy in a generation. A year earlier, in 1995, the state of South Carolina initiated similar changes through the South Carolina Family Independence Act. At the time, while I served as chairman of the conference committee that finalized the welfare reform legislation, some in the State House attempted to demonize our efforts to give real hope to those who had been locked in the system for so long. Of course, none of the doom and gloom came to pass. Instead, South Carolina has reduced the welfare caseload by more than 60 percent, and more than three-fourths of those who were "job-ready" have been moved out of the system and into the workforce. Thousands of South Carolinians have found meaningful and sustained employment, strengthening their self-esteem and quality of life. National trends have been equally inspiring. According to research accumulated by the Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit group in Washington, since the 1996 reforms, both the poverty levels for black children and single mothers have been reduced by one-third and are at their lowest points in history. All of this has taken place while the number of national welfare caseloads has been cut by nearly 50 percent and the overall poverty rate has fallen to its lowest level in 25 years. However, our work is not complete. Now, many on welfare face stronger obstacles to bettering their situation. Today, one out of every seven children are born out of wedlock, and children born outside of marriage are seven times more likely to live in poverty. Yet despite these facts, the present-day welfare system continues to penalize the marriages of low-income couples. This is why I join with President Bush in seeking the introduction of experimental programs to promote and restore a culture of marriage. As a nation, we should ensure that the opportunity for self-achievement is available to everyone. The problems that remain in our welfare system are not insurmountable. We can provide efficient training, quality child care and give better incentives to employers. We must also continue the pro-growth policies that President Bush and Congress began with tax cuts last year because a healthier economy will create more jobs and better pay for employees. The effects of poverty are serious, so we must be serious when dealing with them. The fight will take patience and compassion, but we already know the path to success. ---Rep. Wilson was recently appointed to the task force on reauthorization, called the Welfare Reform Action Team.