On the subject of public welfare, a bipartisan consensus is emerging in state legislatures across America – a consensus about current policy, if not the details of a new one. The fact is that public welfare costs too much, fosters dependency, and tears families apart.
New Jersey State Assemblyman Wayne Bryant, who represents his state's poorest district, argues that "Welfare, as it is today, is a form of slavery."
Dissatisfaction with the welfare status quo was apparent at a well-attended legislative breakfast sponsored in Lansing by The Mackinac Center for Public Policy in late January. Legislators from both parties and every point on the ideological spectrum agreed that change of some sort is necessary.
One change that is occurring with increasing frequency in the states is outright reduction or elimination of certain benefits. Michigan's abandonment of General Assistance welfare last year is a case in point. At least a dozen other states have dramatically curtailed payouts in similar programs. New York Governor Mario Cuomo recently announced his goal of saving $1 billion in welfare costs. Over the last year, seven states have cut payments in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program while nine more have tightened standards for eligibility. Real (afterinflation) benefit levels are falling in most of the remaining states.
New Jersey adopted a rule in January making it the first state in the nation (pending federal approval) to deny additional payments to welfare mothers who have more children. California's Governor is pushing an initiative that would copy the New Jersey rule plus cut AFDC checks by 10 percent and require teenage mothers to live with their families and stay in school to continue receiving benefits.
A pioneer in welfare reform is the state of Wisconsin. Innovative programs to remove the anti-work, anti-family, and anti-marriage biases in current policy are being watched and copied in several other states. Here in Michigan, the Wisconsin reforms may form the basis for the Engler administration's new approach to welfare, which reportedly is to be announced soon.
Changes in Michigan are long overdue. At the start of this decade, nearly one in eight Michiganians were receiving some form of public assistance. There is little evidence that the system has really "worked" and much evidence that unless new policies are adopted, the state may be "stuck" with this expensive problem for the forseeable future. The victims are not just working citizens but increasingly they are the recipients themselves.
In the past, stringent federal welfare rules hampered the freedom of states to innovate. In recent years, that policy has been relaxed by the granting of selective waivers and the Bush administration has announced its intention to make it even easier for states to secure permission to waive federal welfare rules in the future. A more flexible waiver policy is intended to encourage the states to experiment with their own welfare reforms and it appears that the states are eager to take up the challenge. The next several years are certain to produce 50 "mini-laboratories" of reform, and Michigan will hopefully become a leader in that national effort.