Project 21 New Visions

Gianno Caldwell

Obama Should Work with the New Congress to Reinstate the Clinton-GOP Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996


by Gianno Caldwell (bio)

 

After 50 years of America's "War on Poverty" yielding little progress at much expense, how can we more effectively provide opportunity for our least fortunate brothers and sisters?

In 1996, with a divided government similar to what we have now, a Republican Congress and President Bill Clinton created and signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. It reformed traditional welfare by linking government benefits to recipients performing regular work or community service jobs. It also provided federal funding to the states for child care benefits for working parents and some medical coverage, and it permitted states flexibility in designing programs to best meet their own unique needs by block-granting much of the federal funding to the states without specific mandates as to how it could be spent.

I can attest to this reform's effectiveness through my own family's experiences with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in our state.

A cousin of mine was once on welfare and felt stuck and hopeless because she lacked marketable skills. Furthermore, she thought the cost of a babysitter was far too much to step out in faith to get educated and find work.

But thanks to the Clinton-GOP welfare reforms, she went from a dire outlook on life to an opportunity to learn information technology skills. She joined a program that allowed her to enter the federal workforce. She later became a permanent federal employee and transitioned from welfare to self-reliance.

This is what government aid should be a temporary thing to serve as a buffer for individuals in their greatest time of need.

Welfare should never be used as a means of subsistence living over the long term.

Yet the reform passed in 1996 was virtually gutted by the Obama Administration in 2012. Unilaterally, Obama declared states no longer needed to abide by the congressionally-mandated work requirements of TANF. The program credited with helping halve the welfare ranks and giving my cousin her dignity back was radically swept aside by executive fiat.

We cannot go back. We can do better. We owe it to our least fortunate to give them a hand up instead of just a hand out.

Now, with the structure of government in 2015 looking a lot like it did in 1996, I propose something expanding on the TANF-style welfare reform.

First, create an education requirement. Mandatory education provisions for welfare recipients foster the development of skills and training necessary for recipients to provide for themselves and their families. This creates avenues for their successful entry into the workforce and off public assistance.

Educational attainment and skills development are essential to self-sufficiency.

A great example can be found at the City Colleges of Chicago (CCC). CCC is nationally recognized for its work in a program designated as the "Reinvention." The Reinvention program matches curriculum with participants' attainment. There is a GED program for those without high school diplomas and a fast-track, dual-enrollment program allowing students to obtain GEDs while taking classes towards a trade or associates degree. Free public transportation is available for qualifying students, as is on-site childcare. To top it off, CCC has a "College to Careers" program linking students to employers. Thanks to CCC's network of private and public sector employers, students can train, interview and find jobs in popular fields and move from poverty and dependence to self-sufficiency.

We can do more than help with educational opportunity. Government can provide tax credits for companies hiring welfare recipients by expanding the employment opportunity credit to incentivize employers to hire those in poverty. Providing extended relief for employers who retain workers for a period of two or more years would be another added benefit to businesses and potential hires.

It was foolish for the White House to walk away from success in welfare reform. The change on Capitol Hill provides an opportunity to correct that mistake that should not be squandered.

Our federal government can effectively assist those suffering from the harshest forms of economic instability. According to CNN, there are 48 million Americans living in poverty. Bipartisan reform can happen as it has in the past. Government can help the country's most vulnerable citizens and restore their dignity.

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Project 21 member Gianno Caldwell is the founder and principal of Caldwell Strategic Consulting. Comments may be sent to Project21@nationalcenter.org.

Published by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21, other Project 21 members, or the National Center for Public Policy Research, its board or staff.


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