When President Bill Clinton signed a bipartisan bill tightening the rules around welfare eligibility in 1996 — and making many benefits conditional on work — critics on the political left predicted terrible effects.
A few members of the Clinton administration quit in protest. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned of devastating increases in child poverty. The New Republic proclaimed, “Wages will go down, families will fracture and millions of children will be made more miserable than ever.”
A quarter-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 59 percent since 1993, with need receding on nearly every front. Child poverty has fallen in every state, and it has fallen by about the same degree among children who are white, Black, Hispanic and Asian, living with one parent or two, and in native or immigrant households.
How did this happen? The 1996 welfare law turned out to be a case study of different political ideologies combining to produce a result that was better than either side would likely have produced on its own.
Some conservative critiques of the old welfare contained an important insight, Jason told me. Poor single mothers (the main beneficiaries of welfare) were better able to find and hold jobs than many liberals expected. Over the past few decades, increased employment among single mothers has been one reason for the decline in child poverty, according to the study, which was done by Child Trends, a research group.
But the biggest cause was an expansion of government aid. And progressives were the main force behind this expansion. With welfare less generous, Democrats (sometimes in alliance with Republicans) pushed for policies to help low-income workers, such as expansions of the earned-income tax credit and food stamps. Increases in state-level minimum wages also played a role.
“I don’t know where I’d be right now if I didn’t have that help,” said Stacy Tallman, a mother of three and a waitress in Marlinton, W.Va., referring to Medicaid, tax credits and food stamps.
After welfare reform, the focus of the government’s anti-poverty efforts shifted from people who weren’t working to people who were — and, thanks partly to the generosity of the new programs, child poverty plummeted. The size of the decline, Dana Thomson, a co-author of the study, said, “is unequaled in the history of poverty measurement.”
Dolores Acevedo-Garcia of Brandeis University pointed out that 12 million additional children would be poor today if the poverty rate were still as high as it was in the 1990s. The reasons to cheer this development are both immediate and longer term: Children who spend even modest amounts of time in poverty earn less money and are less healthy as adults on average, research has shown.
Hiding in plain sight
I am guessing that many readers are surprised to hear about the big drop in child poverty since the 1990s. I’ll confess that I was — and I have been covering economics for much of the past two decades. As Jason told me, “It is odd that such a big decline in child poverty has gone almost completely unnoticed.”
In part, the lack of attention stems from a theme I’ve mentioned before in this newsletter: bad-news bias. Journalists and academic experts are often more comfortable reporting negative developments than positive ones. We worry that we come off as blasé or Pollyannaish when we report good news.
The poverty statistics add to the confusion because there are so many different versions. The measure that the Census Bureau calls “official” does not include government aid, which is bizarre, as Dylan Matthews of Vox has noted. And every measure has limitations. The one that Jason used in his story overestimates the impact of the earned-income tax credit and underestimates the impact of the food stamps, for technical reasons. (Neither alters the basic conclusion, as Robert Greenstein, a longtime progressive policy adviser, says.)
Still, I understand why many people are reluctant to focus on the poverty decline. The U.S. 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 failed to pass several of his anti-poverty proposals. Those measures would have expanded access to child care and increased the child tax credit, among other things.
Despite these caveats, the decline in poverty deserves to be a major news story. For one thing, it’s legitimately surprising: Even Jason — who has spent more time writing about American poverty than almost any other journalist — acknowledges that welfare reform did less damage than he expected, in part because of the subsequent expansions of aid.
At a time of deep cynicism about government, the drop in poverty is an example of Washington succeeding at something big. “The decline in child poverty is very, very impressive,” Greenstein said, “and it is overwhelmingly due to the increased effectiveness of government programs.”
Other Big Stories
During Alex Jones’s latest trial, witnesses said that 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 unionize stores. (The Times’s Noam Scheiber recently profiled her.)
The pioneering filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard died at 91.
Ken Starr, the former independent counsel whose report led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, died at 76.
Ukraine’s recent victories are Biden’s, too, Bret Stephens writes.
“We’re in a worse place than I expected”: David Wallace-Wells interviewed Bill Gates about the progress on poverty, hunger and climate.
Traditional icebreakers are stressful. Games are better ways to get to know your co-workers, says The Atlantic’s Kate Cray.
Advice from Wirecutter: Find the right ceiling fan.
Lives Lived: The photographer William Klein built his reputation on dreamlike images of city life, faces in crowds blurred by motion or as if glimpsed in a trance. He died at 96.
SPORTS NEWS FROM THE ATHLETIC
Las Vegas takes a 2-0 lead: A’ja Wilson scored 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the Aces’ 85-71 win over the Sun last night. No W.N.B.A. team has ever come back from 2-0 down in a best-of-five finals series.
Suns and Mercury owner suspended: The N.B.A. suspended Robert Sarver for one year and fined him $10 million after an investigation found he fostered a toxic work environment.
Closing in on history: Aaron Judge has 20 games and five homers left to break Roger Maris’s American League record of 61 home runs after launching a pair last night. Opposing pitchers have no idea what to do with Judge at this point.
ARTS AND IDEAS
Wie wird ein Bastard/der vom Schoß einer trostlosen Dirne kroch/Aus ’nem gottverdammten, verlor’nem Loch in der Karibik/Ohne Titel, ohne Mittel, ohne Werte/Am Ende doch ein Held und ein Gelehrter?
Those are the opening lines to “Hamilton.” In German.
Sera Finale, a rapper-turned-songwriter, and Kevin Schroeder, a theater translator, have translated the musical — with more than 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 dense references to hip-hop and American history, and preserve the 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
Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David
P.S. Henry Bliss became America’s first recorded traffic fatality 123 years ago today in New York.