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Dispatches The Buzz

The good news about welfare reform keeps coming. Last week two liberal Washington think tanks, the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, released studies showing that concentrated poverty in the United States-measured by the number of people living in areas where economic despair is rampant-declined by 24 percent during the 1990s.

That number had climbed during the 1970s and 1980s in good economic times and bad, but welfare overhaul in the 1990s pushed aid recipients to find jobs and led many to increase their incomes or move out of slums. "This is a stunning reversal," said Bruce Katz, head of the Center for Urban and Metropolitan Policy at Brookings.

Conventional liberal wisdom seven years ago was that welfare reform would increase poverty. For example, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne sputtered in August 1996 about "this welfare bill rushed into law in an election-year spasm of dishonest rhetoric ... this horror of a bill."

By 2000, though, even Wendell Primus (one of three federal officials who resigned when Bill Clinton cemented his reelection by supporting welfare reform) acknowledged that "welfare reform is working better than I thought it would.... The sky isn't falling anymore. Whatever we have been doing over the last five years, we ought to keep going."

In 2001, liberal journalists complained that welfare reform's five-year limit for benefits was too stringent. A study from the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, though, showed that as concerns about the impending time limit kicked in during 1999 and 2000, more women went to work and the number of two-parent families also increased. (Besides, states can exempt 20 percent of their caseloads, or more if they choose to pay some benefits with state rather than federal funds.)

In 2002, press fears grew that the gains registered from 1995 to 2000 would be lost amid economic slump. But two months ago Elizabeth Shogren reported in the Los Angeles Times that "onetime welfare recipients have held on to most of their gains in the job market," and that in poor communities the "significant cultural shift" has continued: "Work has taken the place of welfare checks for millions."

Ms. Shogren noted that "nationwide, never-married mothers ... the group that had most commonly relied on welfare-have flocked into the workplace." The Urban Institute reported that the percentage of such women employed increased from 47 percent in 1994 to 69 percent in 2000 and stayed up: The figure was 68 percent in 2002.

Last week a fourth Washington think tank, the conservative Heritage Foundation, also pushed forward the poverty debate by proposing ways to increase the number of two-parent families among the poor. Heritage researchers noted that three-fourths of unmarried new, poor parents are still seeing each other when their children are born, and concluded that if the mother and father marry and the mother works part-time, over 80 percent of their families will move out of poverty.