The recent passage of the American Health Care Act through the House of Representatives, though contentious, proves one point definitively: This government is fully capable of making progress when it puts its mind to it.
Now, with meaningful strides being made in such fields as healthcare and tax reform, it's high time lawmakers look ahead to the next major legislative task. And to my mind, there is no system in greater need of reform than the welfare system.
The welfare system has remained largely unchanged since the sweeping bipartisan reforms of 1996 made under former President Bill Clinton, but in the intervening years, we seem to have lost sight of why those reforms were enacted. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was meant to transform welfare programs into a temporary safety net that gave impoverished families the help they needed to become self-sufficient again by incentivizing full-time employment and financial literacy.
However, the reality is that our current system discourages, prevents, and blocks any attempt at upward mobility. In the 20 years since the Clinton reforms, federal spending on welfare has tripled, yet poverty rates are almost unchanged. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that there are 5.7 million job openings around the country, yet 6.9 million people remain unemployed. The number of food stamp recipients has ballooned astronomically from 17.2 million in 2000 to 44.2 million in 2016. The nation is spending more than $1 trillion a year on more than 90 federal welfare programs, yet these policies clearly continue to fail the most vulnerable members of our society, leading them into cycles of unemployment and government dependency.
We must take a comprehensive look at means-tested welfare expenditures to figure out what works and what doesn't. Just throwing money at the problem won't solve anything. We need vocational training and job search programs that enable welfare recipients to develop and apply the skills necessary to succeed and thrive in professional environments.
Most importantly, we need to strengthen and reinforce work requirements that get people out of the house and into the labor force. A 2014 study by the American Enterprise Institute found that "Having a job is the surest way out of poverty …Welfare programs that incentivize work have been far more successful in boosting incomes and mobility than simple cash assistance programs."
Such solutions work not just in theory but in practice. In Maine, Republican Gov. Paul LePage enacted in 2014 a series of reforms that required all able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) to hold a job, participate in state-sponsored vocational training, or do community service in order to receive food stamp benefits.
The results were immediate and exemplary: Just three months after the work policy went into effect, the ABAWD caseload in Maine had dropped by a staggering 80 percent, from 13,332 in December to 2,678 in March. This is just one of the many significant successes state governments have seen with their welfare reform initiatives, and there is no reason to believe similar federal policies wouldn't pay the same dividends for the 4.7 million ABAWDs on food stamps nationwide.
It is imperative that our legislators seize this critical moment and do not allow complacency to erode the dedication that has brought them to this point. Congress needs to push forward on legislation like that proposed by Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, and deliver substantive reform on the national level. The road ahead certainly isn't easy, but lawmakers are now in a prime position to strike while the iron is hot and craft a welfare system that actually raises helpless citizens out of the depths of poverty. The sooner they can start, the better — for the poor, for the economy, and for the country.
Adam Brandon (@adam_brandon) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is president and CEO of FreedomWorks.
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