House Budget Committee Hearing: Strengthening the Safety Net

Opening Remarks, As Prepared for Delivery

Before we start, I just want to note that today, millions of workers and businesses will file their taxes. 

I view the core mission of this committee as ensuring that every dollar the government takes from a hardworking citizen is spent as efficiently and effectively as possible, and only on programs where the federal government has a critical role to play.

To that end, the focus of today’s hearing is on reforming the federal government’s role in public-assistance programs, so that taxpayer dollars are carefully targeted to those in need – the disabled, the sick, and those who, through no fault of their own, have fallen on hard times.   

As we seek to end wasteful practices, promote independence, and protect the safety net from the threat of a debt crisis, we should learn from the extraordinary success of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act.

On the eve of the 1996 welfare reform, Democratic senator Frank Lautenberg voiced his concern that the bill would transform America into a Third World nation, leaving “children hungry and homeless . . . begging for money, begging for food, and even at eight and nine years old engaging in prostitution.”

Senator Lautenberg was not alone in making these kinds of apocalyptic predictions about that historic law. But what happened in reality?  

Transforming welfare – by, among other things, instituting meaningful work requirements, setting time limits, and empowering states to design more effective programs – cut caseloads in half against a backdrop of falling poverty rates.

There was the single greatest reduction in poverty among children since the 1960s. Poverty among children in female-headed households fell from 55.4 percent in 1991, to 39.3 percent by 2001. 

The Congressional Research Service said this past December that, “Since 1996 welfare reform, progress appears to have been largely sustained in both reducing welfare dependency and poverty among children in female-headed families, in spite of the recent recession.”

Today, over 15 years later, we are hearing the same kinds of hysterical predictions from critics of our budget.

Last week, President Obama accused Republicans of being ‘social Darwinists.’

I didn’t think that Senator Lautenberg’s outlandish accusation could be topped, but I think it has been.

Let’s put aside the outrageous rhetoric. Let’s look at what the House-passed budget actually does.

This budget treats all Americans with respect and dignity.  It recognizes that the federal government’s attempts to help can often do more harm than good. What honest observer of government could disagree?

Is it in our national interest to create a class of people permanently dependent on the government? More to the point, is it in the best interest of these individuals to become dependent on government?

We must also ask: What happens to those who are most in need of government assistance when the government can no longer pay its bills?

We face the most predictable debt crisis in history – and if this crisis hits, those who rely on the safety net the most will be hurt the first and the worst.

In contrast to the gradual reforms our budget phases in – reforms that protect those most in need of help – a debt crisis would force sharp, immediate cuts in spending, hurting those who cannot help themselves. Meanwhile, sharp, immediate increases in taxes would stunt job growth and opportunity for those who can.    

We saw the success of welfare reform. The Republican budget follows in the tradition of this success.

Opponents of reform were wrong in 1996, and today – as we act to prevent a debt crisis that truly would devastate the poor – they are even more wrong. 

I want to thank all of witnesses for coming today.  I appreciate all of you taking time out of your busy schedules to provide us with your testimony.