Commentary

The successful policy that progressives love to hate

| Sep 15, 2022

A new report confirms the enormous progress that America has made in reducing child poverty — and the enormous problem that progressives have coping with that fact.

In “Lessons from a Historic Decline in Child Poverty,”Child Trends, a nonpartisan research organization focused on children and youth, reports that child poverty fell from 27.9% in 1993 to 11.4% in 2019, while deep poverty (households with income less than half the poverty line) fell from 7.3% to 3.2%. These figuresuse an adjusted poverty measure that accounts for regional differences, some expenses (including taxes) that households face and incoming transfers they receive from safety-net programs.

The starting point of 1993 is notable because it came just before Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (commonly known as “welfare reform”). Welfare reform replaced the open-ended program of cash grants to parents with little or no income, called “Aid to Families with Dependent Children” (AFDC), with a less generous, time-limited, work-required program called “Temporary Assistance to Needy Families” (TANF).

The change, progressives predicted, would plunge millions into poverty. Two of President Bill Clinton’s top social-services administrators resigned in protest. “If, in 10 years time, we find children sleeping on grates, picked up in the morning frozen, and ask, ‘Why are they here, scavenging, awful to themselves, awful to one another,’ will anyone remember how it began?” asked then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York.

The welfare rolls declined precipitously — from 5.1 million families in 1994 to just over 2 million in 2000 — but, as Child Trends shows, destitution was not the result. Instead, the teen pregnancy rate plunged, more people moved into the workforce and safety-net benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamps”) and wage supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) picked up the slack. Child Trends does not include public health insurance coverage in its analysis, but Congress has also since created the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Affordable Care Act.

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Oren Cass is the executive director at American Compass.

@oren_cass