Congressman Jim Jordan (R-OH), Chairman of the Republican Study Committee, is introducing welfare reform legislation this week. The legislation builds upon the successful 1996 welfare reform effort, which focused on only one of 77 welfare programs, by extending the same work-oriented policy to other means-tested federal programs.
ConservativeHome's Ryan Streeter recently posed four questions to Rep. Jordan about his welfare reform bill.
RS: Why does America need an update to welfare reform?
Rep. Jordan: Republicans in Congress worked with President Clinton in 1996 to pass welfare reforms that replaced a failed program (AFDC) with a new one (TANF). To get TANF benefits, able-bodied adults were required to either work part-time or prepare for a job. Within 12 years, 2.8 million families had successfully left the TANF rolls and began to provide for themselves again.
Clinton said these reforms would “end welfare as we know it.” But TANF is only 1 of 77 federal programs that provide various benefits exclusively to poor and low-income families. Since 1996, combined state and federal welfare spending has nearly doubled. We’ll spend nearly $1 trillion just this year and more than $10 trillion over the next decade.
Even with all these resources in play, there are about 43 million Americans living in poverty. It’s obvious we must do more than throw money at the problem. What we need is a smarter approach to welfare.
RS: What are the key features of the Welfare Reform Act of 2011?
Rep. Jordan: First, the bill recognizes that individual welfare programs must be viewed as part of a large, intertwined, and rapidly expanding system – one that is quickly pushing America closer to bankruptcy. To help people evaluate the cost and the effectiveness of our welfare system, each year the President’s budget office will report figures for both state and federal welfare spending.
The Welfare Reform Act also extends TANF-like reforms to a program called SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps. With 40 million people on the rolls, SNAP is one of the largest of the 77 means-tested federal welfare programs. This program often encourages long-term dependence, with half the aid going to people who have received food stamps for 8.5 years or more. Asking individuals to spend 60 hours a month working or preparing for work will foster self-reliance and help families become able to provide for themselves once again.
Finally, the bill sets welfare spending on a more sustainable path. In the first budget written after unemployment falls to 6.5%, federal welfare spending will return to pre-recession levels and be allowed to grow with inflation. Our welfare budget was already at historic levels before the recession, and it has shot even higher during the last few years. These increases should not permanently inflate spending after the economy has recovered.
RS: Why would we want to include work requirements, especially in this economy?
Rep. Jordan: The most effective welfare benefit is the one that leads to a job. But as we’ve all seen in recent years, jobs are not always readily available. With that in mind, “work requirements” are defined broadly enough to include supervised job search, community service work, education and job training, and even drug or alcohol treatment – as well as paid employment.
Even in a down economy, requiring able-bodied adults on welfare to work or prepare for work will move them closer to independence and a better life. As Ronald Reagan once said, “We should measure welfare’s success by how many people leave welfare, not by how many are added.”
RS: Recent data show us that unwed child-bearing and divorce have grown to disturbingly high rates in middle class homes, making family breakdown we used to associate with welfare families more of a mainstream problem. Is there anything policymakers can do about this?
Rep. Jordan: It’s important to understand that a society is only as strong as its most basic unit – the family. Children brought up in married households have been shown to fare better than other children by a variety of important social and economic measures. Policymakers need to internalize these lessons and be prepared to make an economic case for traditional family values.
At the very least, we should stop creating incentives for parents not to be married. These “marriage penalties” are often written into the tax code, and they currently exist in welfare eligibility guidelines and even in the structure of ObamaCare’s health insurance tax credits.