Doug Besharov on welfare reform

Here’s a piece that won’t make pleasant reading for either liberals or conservatives.

Besharov — who more or less counts as a welfare “hawk” but who always gets his facts and arguments straight and who actually knows and cares about the plight of poor people — demonstrates that the “welfare reform” movement culminating in the replacement of AFDC by TANF accounts for only about a third of the decline in the welfare rolls. The balance he attributes to improved economic conditions and expanded benefits for poor working families.

The humanitarian disaster predicted by the liberals didn’t happen, Besharov says, but the changes made a very large number of poor people even poorer. And while the change in welfare offices to a “jobs-first” culture is real, the time limits and work requirements have been mostly bluff, for good administrative and human reasons. Now that the people who were easy to move into the labor market have mostly moved, and with the 90s boom only a fond memory, further shrinking the caseloads is going to be hard work, and the states probably won’t do it.

In the meantime, all those benefits for poor working families are extending disincentives to work and marriage well into the middle third of the income distribution, and vastly expanding the potential voting constituency for further strengthening the social safety net. (Besharov is more convinced than I am that the latter effect is a bad thing.) The last Congress punted on the reauthorization of TANF, so it’s going to be high on the agenda of the new Congress whether Lott, DeLay, and Rove want it there or not.

Reading Besharov’s sober discussion of how hard all this is going to be makes John DiIulio’s account of the childish level of domestic policy discourse in the Bush White House even more depressing. I guess we will now get to see whether “compassionate conservatism” actually has any content or not. Don’t bet the ranch on it.


Brad DeLong says that the article makes him (as a liberal) pretty happy. I agree that its news about the past of welfare reform is mostly cheerful. But its implications for the future may be less so. Besharov points out that we managed to largely get rid of “welfare as we knew it” by moving toward a more European-style welfare state, with substantial benefits for working families as well as the very poor. That makes Besharov nervous, though it doesn’t bother DeLong (or me) very much. What makes me nervous is what the folks now in power in Washington — none of them as thoughtful, as knowledgeable, or as worried about the sufferings of the poor as Besharov is — are likely to think about it and do about it, as TANF gets reauthorized this year.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: