The Future of Welfare
Where Do We Go From Here?

Like it or not, welfare reform has arrived, in the form of a bill signed into law last year by President Clinton. The Atlantic's Jack Beatty convenes a panel of experts to discuss the future of welfare in this country.

March 12, 1997

What will politicians do now that they don't have "welfare" to kick around anymore? The issue has always seemed to the more realistic among us to be mostly about winning elections. As middle-class incomes have gone flat the appeal of the politics of welfare has grown, and the prevailing resentment has been, "We work hard; why can't they." Ronald Reagan exploited this sentiment in 1980, with his anecdotes about "welfare queens"; Bill Clinton exploited it in 1992, in vowing "to end welfare as we know it" (which is one campaign promise he has kept).


The March Cover
The welfare bill Clinton signed last summer does end welfare as we know it. It is no longer a federal entitlement. It is now to be run by the states. National politicians have lost the best issue of the last two decades. Until now, by denouncing shiftless welfare recipients they could send mixed signals -- racial signals foremost, but also class signals to the bulging numbers of low-wage workers whose dignity rests on not taking welfare -- that were untoppable.


Here are several questions to get us off and running. As we discuss them let's remember that there were real problems with welfare, but let's not lose sight of the politics that drives the issue.



  • What were the real problems with welfare? Name a few. How will the system created by the new welfare bill mitigate or worsen them?



  • I was under the impression that real welfare reform, which involved creating public-service jobs for unemployable recipients, would cost more money than the old system. I thought this was the lesson of the Wisconsin reforms. Yet this new welfare law will supposedly save billions. How did that happen? What happened to the Wisconsin model?



  • Clay Shaw, the Florida Republican whose committee framed the welfare bill, has likened recipients to monkeys in a zoo, dependent on taxpayer-supported bananas. What's the evidence on dependency? Just how many welfare recipients were chronically dependent? Is this drastic change in the system aimed at just a small number of recipients? In other words, have a few bad cases made the new law? (Also, what does it say about the new law that its framer can speak of welfare recipients in that way?)



  • ran a story last fall saying that an academic named David Ellwood is responsible for the new law. What was his role? Welfare has made careers in academia; what role did welfare research play in the new law? If the answer is "none" or "very little," what does that tell us?



  • Since the entitlement character of welfare has been replaced by lump-sum funding, what will happen when a recession hits, state revenues fall off, and more people sign up for welfare? If Federal funding is fixed, but the population needing it is increasing, what gives? What was the logic of the block grant idea?


Among other things, I hope that we'll be able here to move beyond vague discussion of political design and the balancing of the budget and instead will focus on providing a cogent analysis of the new welfare law as a reform. Where do we go from here?

-- Jack Beatty

Roundtable Overview

Introduction and opening questions by Jack Beatty

Round One -- Posted March 12, 1997


Round Two -- Posted March 25, 1997