Peter Edelman—for the past 40 years an important liberal participant in the ongoing debate over welfare—is probably best known not for occupying any particular position, but for resigning from one. He was one of the Clinton administration officials who gave up his post in the Department of Health and Human Services (he served as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation) to protest the president’s signing of welfare reform legislation in 1996. Edelman has written Searching for America’s Heart principally to justify his continuing opposition to that landmark legislation.
Edelman first rose to public prominence as a legislative assistant to Bobby Kennedy, and, as the book’s subtitle suggests, Kennedy looms large in the volume. Essentially the book’s message is that Bobby Kennedy was a good Democrat because he would have opposed welfare reform—whereas Bill Clinton is a bad Democrat because he supported it.
Both of Edelman’s judgments are questionable. He acknowledges the existence of a revisionist view of RFK that highlights the latter’s surprising conservatism, but dismisses it, despite the fact that a compelling case can be made that Bobby Kennedy was the original New Democrat, the first to realize that lifelong existence on a dole is demeaning and dehumanizing. In 1966, Kennedy argued that the welfare state had “largely failed as an anti-poverty weapon,” because it had “destroyed family life.” He contended that only through “hard and exacting” work could poor people achieve upward mobility.
It would be rash to assert that Bobby Kennedy would unquestionably have supported welfare reform had he lived. Nevertheless, RFK’s criticisms of welfare certainly resemble those later voiced by proponents of welfare reform. Edelman rejects these criticisms; he chastises welfare reform because it has “hurt millions of poor people, especially children.” But is that actually the case? It’s worth remembering that welfare reform was opposed in 1996 in large part because of an Urban Institute study (commissioned by Edelman’s deputy, Wendell Primus, who also resigned his post) that predicted, as Edelman recounts, that welfare reform “would drive more than a million children into poverty.”
But that prediction has simply not been borne out. Child poverty has not risen since 1996; instead it has decreased sharply, falling from 20.8 percent to 16.9 percent by 1999. Furthermore, the poverty rates for black children and for children in single-mother families are lower than they have ever been in American history.
Welfare reform isn’t principally responsible for this welcome decline; the excellent performance of the economy, which has generated a demand even for workers with little skill, certainly deserves more of the credit. But more than four years of experience has shown that welfare reform has neither caused child poverty to worsen nor prevented such poverty from receding.
On the other hand, as Edelman rightly notes, many women who have gone off the welfare rolls and gotten jobs have not been able to lift themselves out of poverty. But it is unreasonable to expect that first jobs for long-time welfare recipients will always end their poverty immediately. Instead, the argument in favor of work looks more to the long term: even if a first job doesn’t enable a welfare recipient to leave poverty, the experience and skills gained through work may result in promotions (or new and better jobs) that will reduce poverty over time. A first job is the bottom rung of a ladder, from which people can and do ascend. Prolonged welfare dependency, by contrast, amounts to being stuck in the mud; it offers no opportunity for advancement out of poverty.
Furthermore, former welfare recipients are not left completely without a safety net: a multitude of federal and state programs (most notably the Earned Income Tax Credit) have been instituted to aid the working poor. It’s not only God who helps those who help themselves—for very good reasons, the American public is much more eager to support programs that reduce poverty for those who work than for those who don’t. Despite the initial strident objections of the left, welfare reform is transforming the welfare poor into the working poor. By doing so, ironically, in the long run welfare reform will likely do much to accomplish the left’s goal of increasing assistance to the poor.
What will happen to former welfare recipients who cannot work? Even under reformed welfare, they can continue to receive benefits. It is too often forgotten—if Edelman has remembered it, he certainly doesn’t mention it—that the five-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits does not apply to all recipients: states are permitted to exempt 20 percent of their caseloads from welfare-to-work requirements and can continue to provide benefits to these people indefinitely.
In other words, welfare reform can be supported (and was supported) even by those who think that not all families are likely to be able to support themselves by working. The 20 percent exemption constitutes welfare reform’s acknowledgment that different recipients are differently situated. It is not fair to charge, as Edelman does, that “the overwhelming message of the new welfare law is that one size fits all.”
Searching for America’s Heart is ultimately most notable for attesting to the dramatic transformation of the debate over welfare. It is hard to imagine a more vehement opponent of welfare reform than Peter Edelman, yet even he accepts many of the criticisms of the welfare system—and of the underclass behavior that it helped produce—that have been voiced by advocates of reform. Edelman acknowledges that “bad policies kept too many people on welfare for too long.” He also concedes that issues of underclass behavior need to be addressed: “Too many of the people left behind [in the inner city] developed very bad patterns of behavior, involving crime, violence, gangs, drugs and alcohol, dropping out of school, nonmarital births, and too much reliance on welfare.”
It was precisely the widespread recognition of these behavioral problems that led to the passage of welfare reform in the first place. Though there have been encouraging signs, the success of welfare reform in grappling with such problems is still somewhat unclear. But if one takes these problems seriously, as Edelman claims to do, it is also wrong to denounce welfare reform as a colossal mistake.
Joel Schwarz is a contributing editor of Philanthropy and the author of Fighting Poverty with Virtue: Moral Reform and America’s Urban Poor, 1825-2000.