The ink wasn’t even dry on the proposal when the wailing began. You might be excused for thinking the safety net was being dismantled. One Democratic senator wondered aloud whether the bill would prompt the widespread auctioning of abandoned children into slavery. A senior Democrat in the House of Representatives warned that within two years of enactment, the bill would “put 1.5 million to 2.5 million children into poverty.”
You remember those criticisms … you heard them last month when the House of Representatives passed its fiscal year 2012 budget resolution, right?
Actually, they were all spoken 15 years ago, on the eve of the historic passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. What happened after President Bill Clinton signed this landmark reform into law is well known: Welfare caseloads were cut in half against a backdrop of falling poverty rates. Child-poverty rates in particular fell by 1 percent every year in the five years following the enactment of the law. Even today, they remain below 1995 levels, even though the nation is just emerging from a severe recession.
Despite this unprecedented success, the defenders of the status quo in Washington are at it again, demonizing the House-passed budget in the same overwrought language they used to attack the bipartisan welfare reforms of the mid-1990s. “The Republican budget rips apart the safety net,” is how the Budget Committee’s ranking Democrat put it. President Obama accused us of wanting to leave children with disabilities to “fend for themselves.”
This rhetoric is not just overheated – it is flat-out false. Our budget – “The Path to Prosperity” – strengthens the safety net by directing more assistance to those who need it most. It provides the chronically unemployed with the incentives and tools they need to bounce back into self-sufficient lives. Most important, it prevents the kind of debt-fueled economic crisis that would hit the poor the hardest.
The House-passed budget directs assistance to those in need by giving more power over federal antipoverty dollars to the states, to be directed by the governors and state lawmakers who are closest to the problem. In doing this, we are building upon the success of the welfare-reform law, which transformed that program into a block grant and gave states more control over its implementation. Washington has been fighting a “war on poverty” for nearly 50 years, yet it is no coincidence that the greatest strides in this effort were made when the federal government gave states the ability to better empower recipients of aid.
Another successful aspect of welfare reform was that it required recipients to either be looking for work or training for work, thus encouraging able-bodied citizens to achieve greater control over their lives. The best welfare program is one that ends with a job and a stable, independent life for the individual, but our budget realizes that it is not enough to provide incentives for work. In addition to a number of measures that promote job creation, the House-passed budget streamlines and strengthens federal job-training programs to help the less-fortunate get back on their feet.
Emulating the bipartisan successes of the mid-1990s will help make federal antipoverty programs stronger and more effective, but that is not enough. There is a key difference between then and now: Today, we face an unsustainable trajectory of government spending that is accelerating the nation toward a ruinous debt crisis.
Mounting debt also threatens our poorest and most vulnerable citizens, because those who depend most on government would be hit hardest by a fiscal crisis. Harsh austerity would be the only course left. A broke government unable to finance its spending commitments would be forced to make indiscriminate cuts affecting current beneficiaries of government programs – without giving them time to prepare or adjust.
As we strengthen welfare for those who need it, we end it for those who don’t. We end wasteful welfare for corporations such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, big agribusinesses, well-connected energy companies, and others that have gotten a free ride from the taxpayer for too long.
The aim of the social safety net should be to empower individuals, putting them in a stronger position to achieve. Government can play a positive role in this area with policies that help those who are down on their luck get back on their feet. The House-passed budget strengthens the social safety net and promotes policies that help people recover from poverty and lead self-sufficient lives.
Hysterical predictions about what would happen to low-income Americans under our budget are not just wildly unrealistic – they are dangerously deluded about the urgent need to avert a crisis that would have devastating effects on the poor. By making our safety net stronger and more sustainable, we can prevent that crisis, promote independence, and move instead toward a more prosperous society – one that maximizes upward mobility and opportunity.
Paul Ryan is a Republican member of Congress from Wisconsin who chairs the House Budget Committee.
View online at The Christian Science Monitor