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From micro to macro

Why conservatives and liberals see so differently the results of welfare reform

From micro to macro

(Krieg Barrie)

In our last issue, we profiled five Hope Awards finalists that help people leave poverty. Please go to and vote for whichever of those local ministries moves you the most. But I regularly get letters asking about the big, national picture: Do we need to reform the U.S. welfare system, and if so, how?

Some history: On Aug. 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law a welfare reform bill designed to move most recipients toward work. That was a good step, because all of us are human beings made in God’s image and able to do some kind of creative work. Critics, though, predicted that any get-a-job pressure on parents would lead to starvation of children. 

What’s happened in the 23 years since? It’s hard to get accurate information regarding controversial issues when both sides search for stats to support their views—but the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality recently provided evidence that seems reliable. “Leaver studies” that have tracked families who left the welfare rolls during the 1990s show 53-70 percent of them gained and kept jobs. More than half of them worked at least 30 hours per week. Their incomes rose. Employment rates of never-married mothers climbed.

But what about the 30-47 percent of those who did not gain and keep jobs? Some single moms ended up worse off. The deep poverty rate (the percentage of families with income less than 50 percent of the poverty line) changed little. Some victimized themselves with drug use. Others lost jobs during the great recession. 

Government cannot take the place of God. Churches and Christian groups are well placed to help the poorest materially and spiritually, as our Hope Awards regional winners do.

Welfare reform did not change some troubling cultural trends, including the growth of cohabitation rather than marriage. For those with at least a college degree, cohabitation can be emotionally scarring but not economically disastrous: About one-fourth of cohabiting couples transition to marriage each year. But in any given year, only 1 out of 10 cohabiters with less than a high-school degree makes the jump to marriage, down from 3 out of 10 in the early 1990s. Couples without legal ties often create children without engaged dads. 

How we interpreted the poverty statistics depended on ideology. Conservatives emphasized the winners, those who left welfare behind. Liberals focused on the losers, poor people who became even poorer. The Christian calling is to help the losers to their feet and show them hope through Christ.

Ideology also ruled appraisal of other reforms, but two programs received general approval. The earned income tax credit made work more rewarding. The Children’s Health Insurance Program improved outcomes for poor pregnant women and children. On health, a large mortality gap remains between rich and poor middle-aged Americans, but that gap largely reflects earlier health history along with drug and alcohol use. 

Happily, the percentage of U.S. eighth graders using alcohol has fallen by 50 percent since 1996. Smoking by 12th graders has fallen by a third. Teen pregnancy and abortion rates have dropped sharply. Obesity remains a problem, as I saw recently during a visit to a Golden Corral restaurant that offered an all-you-can-eat-buffet for $15: The waistlines of many rotund customers showed their unwillingness to waste any money. But recent national surveys suggest that obesity among children 11 and younger may be falling.

Articles at the end of the Stanford report by former state-level administrators offered good suggestions for next steps. Tennessee’s Raquel Hatter stressed the need to reduce bureaucracy, simplify Temporary Assistance for Needy Families rules, eliminate fiscal cliffs where earnings increases prematurely reduce benefits, and embrace a two-generation strategy that delivers high-quality education for children and postsecondary training for parents.

Clearly, the fundamental things—strong families and schools that teach good values and make students job-ready—still apply. Nothing works like work. But Stanford savants overlooked what’s most crucial: Government cannot take the place of God. Churches and Christian groups are well placed to help the poorest materially and spiritually, as our Hope Awards regional winners do. 

Christians should not be the caboose on either the liberal or conservative train. It’s three decades since I started writing about poverty and interviewing many homeless individuals, and it’s still the same old story: Government can provide a safety net, but the Christian calling is to offer trampolines.