In praise of the Clinton-era welfare reforms

In spite of the recent downturn, never-married mothers continue to stay off the welfare rolls. Kausfiles offers some cogent commentary, along with links to the data. Here is his bottom line:

What happened in the 2001-2002 recession, and the subsequent sluggish job recovery? Burtless says reliable figures for 2003 aren’t yet available, but he has the numbers for 2001 and 2002. “Astonishingly,” he says, “divorced, separated and never married mothers seem to have maintained [labor market] participation rates all through the recession” and the follow up. For “never married” mothers, the percent working dipped to 64.4 in 2001 but was back up to 65.8 in 2002. Essentially, it stabilized near its all-time peak, at a level about 20 percentage points higher than before 1996. Burtless thinks this happened at least partly because the recent recession was relatively easy on those at the bottom of the labor market (and relatively hard on those with college degrees). Maybe a different kind of recession–one that hit unskilled jobs the hardest–would produce a big increase in welfare rolls. Maybe not.

Either way, Burtless’ statistics suggest that welfare rolls didn’t fail to rise in 2001-2 because jobless single mothers were heartlessly denied their benefits and left with nothing. The rolls didn’t rise in the recession because single mothers kept on working. That’s a good thing. Advantage: Reformers!

The bottom lines: First, welfare reform has proved resilient and was a good idea. Second, the figures also illustrate why Bush isn’t a shoo-in for reelection. Many of the people spared by the current recession wouldn’t have voted for him anyway.


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