“I had a niece who was in her 30s and had been on welfare for years. She was living with her child in one of the most dangerous public-housing projects in Philadelphia . . . . I spent thousands of dollars trying to help her relocate. I found an apartment for her in Arlington . . . and found a job for her. But when I went to pick her up, she was in a bathrobe with a beer in her hand in the middle of the afternoon. She couldn’t bring herself to make the move and leave the situation she had. My efforts to help her help herself couldn’t compete with the welfare system. In the system, she knew she had a place to live, no matter how dangerous, and she had food and day-care benefits.
“It wasn’t until welfare reform became a reality that [my niece] changed. Welfare reform did what all of my efforts to persuade her could not do. It compelled her to go out and get a job. She had been on welfare for years and the only thing that interrupted that cycle was welfare reform.”
The 1996 welfare reform, although an important success, transformed just one program. More recently, even those reforms have been weakened. Significant reform is needed to ensure that public assistance functions on the principle of self-sufficiency through work. The 1996 reforms should be restored. Furthermore, other programs, such as food stamps and public housing, should be restructured around incentives that encourage work among able-bodied adults.
Restoring a culture of marriage is also crucial. Children born and raised outside marriage are five times more likely to experience poverty than their peers in intact families. They also tend to face numerous other obstacles educationally, behaviorally, and relationally.
Policy should promote healthy marriage, not present an obstacle to it. Too many welfare programs include a marriage penalty. Policy reforms should aim to reduce such penalties. Similarly, policy can increase awareness about the significance of marriage for child outcomes and the resources for marriage education. A portion of TANF funding is set aside for such efforts, yet most states fail to use it for this purpose.
Two states, however, have experimented with marriage-strengthening efforts. Oklahoma and Utah have made resources available for marriage and relationship education to youth and couples who are at risk or already dependent on government services. Elsewhere, community marriage initiatives provide a model. First Things First in Chattanooga, Tenn., for example, provides marriage education, operates public advertising campaigns on the importance of marriage, and holds community events for couples and families. More efforts like these are needed to strengthen the vitally important institution of marriage.
Today, the federal government has spent more on the War on Poverty than on all military wars in American history. We cannot afford another 50 years of policies and programs that fail to truly help America’s most vulnerable. Welfare must be based on principles that encourage the well being of the individual. By promoting self-sufficiency through work and helping Americans in need to build and maintain healthy marriages, we can fight poverty and help provide a stable foundation for children, communities, and society as a whole.
Rachel Sheffield is a policy analyst in the DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation and co-author, with Robert Rector, of “Understanding Poverty in the United States.” This was originally published by the Witherspo