Changing Culture, Not Politics, Changes Human Behavior

In 1936 Congress passed the Aid to Dependent Children Act to help widows stay home and raise their children. From 147,000 families on welfare in 1936 the number rose to five million by the 1994, the peak year. Ten years ago today, August 26, President Clinton signed into law the Welfare Reform Act. Last year the number of families receiving welfare had declined to 1.9 million. Contrary to the cries against the bill in 1996, which were numerous, the reform in welfare promoted in a bipartisan manner by President Clinton and the congress, has generally proven successful.

Various measures of success can be applied to the question of welfare reform. Here are a few. 69% of single mothers are employed today, up from 62% in 1995. In 2000 the number employed actually reached 73%. Another measure of the success of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act is the poverty rate among children. In 1994 the poverty rate among children was 22%, today it is 18%, still much too high I am sure. At the same time there are some numbers that show that we still have a major problem. An average of 1.2 million single mothers a month, who live in homes where there was no wage earner and no Social Security, received no welfare in 2003, up from 700,000 in 1996. Many of these have disabilities, or mental-health and/or substance-abuse problems, reports the Wall Street Journal

African-Americans receive 39% of all welfare, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. 37% of welfare recipients are white, 19% are Hispanic and 2% are Asian and 2% Native-Americans. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that a third of all welfare recipients have a serious mental-health problem and nearly 20% of those who receive benefits have physical impairments. 25.7 million Americans are on food stamps, with the average amount received, per person, being only $93/month.

In today’s Wall Street Journal there is an editorial, “Apocalypse Not,” which shows how those who predicted an imminent social apocalypse in 1996 have been proven wrong a decade later. While it is true that welfare reform has not solved all the problems it sought to address, since no legislation can accomplish that goal, it was a turn in the right direction. Even many who opposed it will now grudgingly admit some of the facts. The Journal observes that several important lessons have been learned about welfare reform during these last ten years. Among these is the lesson that it takes time and persistence to alter the American system. How I wish both politicians and people understood this simple truism.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial concludes by citing the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous dictum that culture, not politics, is the key to changing human behavior. Moynihan believed, rightly I think history proves, the real job of politics is to “nudge the culture in the right direction.” The Journal concludes “Welfare reform worked because it was rooted in that wisdom, and in a basic understanding of human incentives. Support life on the dole, or reward having multiple children without a husband, and any society will develop a culture of dependency.” The liberal approach to welfare fostered such a culture from the 1960s until the mid-1990s and thus worked egregiously against individual responsibility. Had Moynihan, who was a strong doomsday critic of the Welfare Reform Act, lived longer he may have seen that his famous dictum was again proven right. The way to change human behavior is to change culture first! This is why welfare reform is not a partisan issue. In the end there is clearly a moral component in such reform. Ten years is enough time to demonstrate that the reform has worked but there is still much to be done, both to continue the gains of the reform and, more importantly, to raise the ability of our society to care for its weakest members in ways that promote both personal responsibility and communities of compassion. The present level of partisanship in Washington hinders the advance of this discussion but culture, in this case from the grassroots up, can push politics in a better direction in the process.

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