This week in 1996, under great political pressure, President Bill Clinton finally (after two vetoes) signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, more comonly known as "welfare reform."
It made important changes. For the first time, welfare recipients would be required to work after two years of receiving benefits, and there would be a lifetime limit of five years. Perverse incentives to have children out of wedlock and to break up intact families to get benefits were also eliminated.
Opponents claimed that the new law would increase poverty and do irreparable harm to recipients. As benefit payments declined by more than 25 percent over the following 10 years, those same critics wrongly interpreted it as evidence that they'd been right.
But, as a new study of government data by the Manhattan Institute demonstrates, welfare reform did not increase poverty.
When non-cash benefits and refundable tax credits are taken into account, and inflation is properly accounted for, the data show child poverty falling between 1996-2014, despite the intervening Great Recession. Poverty among the children of single parents "reached an all-time low in 2014," the study finds, not even counting the healthcare benefits they receive.
Meanwhile, "deep child poverty," the share of children living at less than half the official poverty level, is lower today than it was in the 1990s. Despite warnings of people being thrown out into the streets, the rate of homelessness does not appear to have increased, either.
President Obama has worked to weaken the work requirements in welfare reform, allowing states to waive it if they can manipulate their statistics to reach other arbitrary goals.
More importantly, Obama took the Great Recession as an opportunity to get as many households as possible into the food stamp program, an important part of his stimulus package. One result was that the number of able-bodied adults with no children who receive food assistance doubled.
It is no achievement to put more people on government assistance. The federal government should help as many people as possible to find ways to support themselves. The aim should not just be to reduce welfare, but to end it.
States such as Kansas and Maine have experimented with this. They required able-bodied childless adults to work for food-stamp benefits, a very modest requirement affecting those least likely to suffer from the change.
In Kansas, the ranks of such recipients plunged instantly by 75 percent, with 60 percent of those who left the rolls finding work within a year. In Maine, 80 percent of such recipients went off food stamps.
Both states' experiences indicate that a large number of able-bodied, childless recipients were happy to collect food benefits while they could do so without any obligation, but did not need them badly enough that they would bother with a work requirement. That says a lot.
Every society will include people incapable of supporting themselves, and that's why welfare exists. But the overarching goal of government in this area for the vast majority of people — for the able-bodied especially — should be to help them become independent and self-sufficient members of society, perhaps capable of supporting others who are not.
This is another reason why a less demanding welfare regimen only takes resources away from the people who need them most.
Welfare programs work when they are a hand up and not a handout. They use society's great wealth to prevent the worst from happening to the less fortunate. But for the able-bodied, welfare should be a temporary support. It was never intended to be a way of life, and welfare reform has helped make it so for fewer people than it once was.