In her latest column, “Goodbye, America! It was fun while it lasted,” Ann Coulter made a worrisome misrepresentation of illegitimacy and the Republican legacy of welfare reform:

The 1996 Welfare Reform bill marked the first time any government entitlement had ever been rolled back. Despite liberal howling and foot-stomping, not subsidizing illegitimacy led, like night into day, to less illegitimacy.

Welfare recipients got jobs, as the hard-core unemployables were coaxed away from their TV sets and into the workforce. For the first time in decades, the ever-increasing illegitimacy rate stopped spiraling upward.

As proof that that welfare reform was a smashing success, a few years later, Bill Clinton started claiming full credit for the bill.

This (not uncommon) misunderstanding about welfare’s success is destroying conservatives’ ability to advance social policy thinking and develop a sorely needed winning political agenda.

It is time the welfare-success fantasy be put to rest.

A brief history of the 1996 Welfare Reform legislation, followed by social data results, proves that welfare reform was not a success – particularly with respect to illegitimacy.

The 1996 federal welfare reform policy goals were based on findings contained in “Families First, the Report of the National Commission on America’s Urban Families,” issued in the last days of the H.W. Bush administration. The statement of findings of this document, adopted into welfare reform goals, was flawless. The goals of 1996 welfare reforms were to:

  1. “provide assistance to needy families”;
  2. “prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock births”;
  3. “encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families”; and
  4. “end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage.”

The 1996 welfare reforms were not successful because nothing in the legislation addressed items 2 and 3 – the most important and politically positive elements of welfare reform goals.

Today, illegitimacy is at record levels – predominantly involving mature women aged 20 to 40. Since federal welfare reforms were enacted in 1996, illegitimacy has risen an astonishing 36.2 percent. Since 1960, when 5.3 percent of children were born out of wedlock, illegitimacy has skyrocketed 694 percent.

Welfare reform has not improved marriage rates – which dived 22.7 percent since 1967. In fact, the marriage rate in 2005 was lower than the marriage rate during the 1932 Great Depression.

Poverty rates have improved since welfare reform was enacted in 1996. Between 1995 and 2005, poverty for single-female households fell 14.7 percent. But the record low for poverty was achieved in 1999 and 2000 and has been rising again at rate of .75 percent annually. This is primarily attributable to provisions forcing women to work (which had a corresponding negative impact on direct parenting of children and increase in child neglect rates).

Welfare reform brought about dramatic reductions in public welfare dependence. The number of families on welfare assistance declined 61.2 percent, from 4.54 million families in 1996 to 1.76 million families in December 2006.

The design of welfare reform essentially privatized welfare – substituting public welfare dependency for another major problem, tremendous amounts of uncollectible child support – yielding little actual net change in net welfare expenditures.

In 2006, there were 15.8 million child support collections cases covering 17.3 million children. Of these, 11.1 million child support cases were in arrears, and 6.8 million were not paying anything.

The child support arrearage for FY 1996 was only $8.1 billion. This exploded 369 percent to $29.9 billion for FY 2006. Total uncollected child support was $40 billion in 1996. This nearly doubled to $75.4 billion in 1999, to $83.9 billion in 2000, and reached a record $105.4 billion in 2006.

In the final analysis, welfare reform was more a failure than a success. This reality runs contrary to reports suggesting that welfare reform has been a success. The positive news about decreases in poverty and welfare caseloads does not survive the bad news about skyrocketing illegitimacy rates, decreased marriage rates, unrecoverable child support and child neglect.

The bad news reflected in other downstream consequences such as widespread health care coverage problems, retirement savings shortfalls, home-loan defaults, declining child well-being statistics and urban crime statistics indicates much work still needs to be done.

From an economic perspective, it is critical to understand that the bad news about the outcome of welfare reform, and the ensuing fiscal consequences, contributed significantly to the collapse of our financial systems.

We must consider welfare reform an incomplete but necessary work in progress. The unstable state of welfare reform and our financial systems provides compelling reasons to complete what we set out to accomplish in 1996.

When we practice trickle-down social policy in concert with trickle-down economics, we can confidently predict a successful socioeconomic synergy the likes of which conservatives have not yet imagined – a victory for both social and economic conservatives.

Republican inactivity on social policy is a major reason why the GOP has been losing elections in droves since 1996. Illegitimacy immediately translates into votes for liberal politicians and a bigger welfare state. Now is the time to rebuild the Republican revolution, and to do it right this time.

I am working on “Marriage Values” policies and legislation in Missouri. The first legislation of the series should be introduced this session. I firmly believe that “Marriage Values” policies address root social problems in ways that are positive to women, men and taxpayers in ways that will render big government “solutions” as unnecessary and stupid as the caboose on a rusting steam-powered freight train.


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