When President Bill Clinton signed a bipartisan bill in 1996 that tightened welfare eligibility rules — and made many benefits dependent on work — critics of the political left predicted dire consequences.
Several members of the Clinton administration resigned in protest. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned of a devastating rise in child poverty. The New Republic proclaimed, “Wages will fall, families will fall apart and millions of children will be made more miserable than ever.”
A quarter of a century later, these predictions look very wrong. As my colleague Jason DeParle wrote this week:
A comprehensive new analysis shows that child poverty has fallen by 59 percent since 1993, with needs declining on almost all fronts. Child poverty has declined in every state and has fallen at about the same rate among children who are white, black, Hispanic, Asian, living with one or two parents, and in native or immigrant households.
How did this happen? The 1996 Welfare Act turned out to be a case study of different political ideologies that together produced a result that was better than either side would probably have achieved on their own.
Some conservative critiques of the old well-being contain an important insight, Jason told me. Poor single mothers (the main beneficiaries of welfare benefits) were better able to find and keep a job than many liberals had expected. According to the study, conducted by Child Trends, a research group, increased employment among single mothers has been one of the reasons for the decline in child poverty in recent decades.
But the biggest cause was an increase in government support. And progressives were the main force behind this expansion. Because the wealth was less generous, Democrats (sometimes in conjunction with Republicans) pushed for policies to help low-income workers, such as extensions of the tax credit for earned income and food stamps. Increases in state-level minimum wages also played a role.
“I don’t know where I would be now if I didn’t have that help,” said Stacy Tallman, a mother of three and waitress in Marlinton, W.Va., referring to Medicaid, tax credits and food stamps.
After the social security reform, the focus of the government’s efforts to fight poverty shifted from those who did not work to those who did – and the generosity of the new programs helped reduce child poverty. The magnitude of the decline, says Dana Thomson, a co-author of the study, “is unparalleled in the history of poverty measurement.”
Dolores Acevedo-Garcia of Brandeis University pointed out that an additional 12 million children would be poor today if the poverty rate were still as high as it was in the 1990s. The reasons to applaud this development are both short-term and longer-term: Children who spend even a small amount of time in poverty earn less money and are less healthy on average as adults, research shows.
Hide in plain sight
I suspect many readers are surprised to hear about the great decline in child poverty since the 1990s. I’ll confess I was — and I’ve covered economics for the past two decades. As Jason told me, “It’s strange that such a large reduction in child poverty has gone almost completely unnoticed.”
In part, the lack of attention stems from a theme I mentioned earlier in this newsletter: bias about bad news. Journalists and academic experts often prefer to report negative developments than positive ones. We’re afraid we’ll come across as blasé or Pollyannaish if we report good news.
The poverty statistics add to the confusion because there are so many different versions. The measure the Census Bureau calls “official” does not include state aid, what’s weird, as Vox’s Dylan Matthews has pointed out. And every measure has limitations. Whoever Jason used in his story overestimates the impact of the tax credit and underestimates the impact of the food stamps, for technical reasons. (Neither changes the basic conclusion, as Robert Greenstein, a longtime progressive policy advisor, says.)
Still, I understand why many people are reluctant to focus on poverty reduction. The US has not solved poverty. More than 20 million Americans are poor today, and many others above the poverty line also struggle to afford a decent life. As successful as President Biden has been in passing many parts of his agenda, Congress has failed to pass several of his anti-poverty proposals. Those measures would have increased access to childcare and increased the child tax credit, among other things.
Despite these caveats, the decline in poverty deserves an important piece of news. For starters, it’s justifiably surprising: Even Jason — who has spent more time writing about American poverty than almost any other journalist — admits that welfare reform has done less damage than he expected, in part because of subsequent expansions of the help.
At a time of deep cynicism about government, the decline in poverty is an example of Washington succeeding in something big. “The reduction in child poverty is very, very impressive,” Greenstein said, “and it’s largely due to the increased effectiveness of government programs.”
Other great stories
At Alex Jones’ latest trial, witnesses said conspiracy theories followed them after the lies he told about the Sandy Hook shooting.
A Starbucks employee in Buffalo said the company had forced her to quit in retaliation for leading efforts to unify stores. (The Times’s Noam Scheiber recently profiled her.)
Pioneering filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard died at the age of 91.
Ken Starr, the former independent defense attorney whose report led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, died at age 76.
Ukraine’s recent victories include Biden’s, Bret Stephens writes.
“We are in a worse place than I expected”: David Wallace Wells interviewed Bill Gates about progress on poverty, hunger and climate.
Traditional icebreakers are stressful. Games are better ways to get to know your colleaguessays The Atlantic’s Kate Cray.
Advice from Wirecutter: Find the right ceiling fan.
Life lived: The photographer William Klein built his reputation on dreamy images of urban life, faces in crowds blurred by movement or as glimpses in trance. He died at 96.
SPORTS NEWS FROM THE ATHLETIC
Las Vegas takes a 2-0 lead: A’ja Wilson scored 26 points and packed 10 rebounds the victory of the Aces 85-71 above the sun last night. No WNBA team has ever come back from a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-five final series.
Owner Suns and Mercury suspended: the NBA Robert Sarver banned for one year and fined him $10 million after an investigation found he fostered a toxic work environment.
Concluding on the history: Aaron Judge has 20 matches and five more home runs to break Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs after launching a pair last night. Opposite pitchers have no idea what to do with Judge on this point.
ART AND IDEAS
Who wird ein Bastard/der vom Schoß einer trostlosen Dirne kroch/Aus ‘nem gottverdammten, lost Loch in der Karibik/Ohne Titel, ohne Mittel, ohne Werte/Am Ende but ein Held und ein Gelehrter?
Those are the opening lines of ‘Hamilton’. In German.
Sera Finale, a rapper turned songwriter, and Kevin Schroeder, a theatrical translator, translated the musical — over 20,000 words and 47 songs — for a production in Hamburg, Germany, the first in a language other than English.
Finale and Schroeder had to interpret the original show’s strong references to hip-hop and American history and preserve its meaning for a German audience. That often meant writing new lyrics, which they would pitch to the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Listen to examples from both versions.
PLAY, WATCH, EAT
What to cook?
Thank you for spending part of your morning at The Times. See you tomorrow. — David
PS Henry Bliss became the first recorded traffic death in America 123 years ago today in New York.