Opinion: Daily Journal

Chicken Little Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

RALEIGH — Those politicians, activists, scholars, and journalists who issued dire warnings in the 1990s about the calamitous impact of welfare reform on poor families have yet to offer a coherent explanation for how wrong they were.

Yes, there have been some half-hearted rationalizations. Some have attempted to credit economic growth alone with the massive decrease in welfare recipiency, and decline in overall poverty, that America has experienced in the wake of the (relatively modest, in my view) welfare reforms enacted by a Democratic president, a Republican Congress, and many of their colleagues among the nation’s governors and legislatures.

I’d say this was a good try, but it really isn’t. We’ve gone through many economic cycles of boom and bust. There’s a lot of data, going back decades, that allow one to test whether poverty rates and welfare dependency are simply products of general economic trends. They aren’t. Welfare rolls soared even during the prosperous years of the 1960s and early 1970s. The growth spurt of the 1980s had only modest impacts on dependency. The main factor explaining the unique trends of the 1990s, as Heritage Foundation analysts Robert Rector and Patrick Fagan have shown, is policy change. Work requirements, time limits, and other welfare reforms — even when imperfectly enforced — have changed behavior. They have led to the real work experience that, more than education or anything else, is the key to building the human capital poor people need to improve their lot.

Now there’s another inconvenient fact for the welfare Chicken Littles to attempt to explain way. According to a report in Monday’s Christian Science Monitor, there has been a sizable decrease in the concentration of poor families in America’s cities during the past decade. During the 1990s, the Monitor found, the number of poor people living in high-poverty areas fell by 24 percent – or 2.5 million. Among blacks, it dropped from 30.3 percent to 18.6 percent. For Hispanics, it dropped from 21.2 percent to 13.8 percent. Among native Americans, it fell from 30.6 percent to 19.5 percent. The overall poverty rate declined during the 1990s, from 13.1 percent to 12.4 percent. Child poverty, especially among blacks, has been falling for several years.

Another way of putting it is that there’s been a decline in housing segregation by class, and apparently, by race as well.

How come? Again, it’s very difficult to attribute the trend to the general economic cycle. A likely explanation, as the article explains, is that welfare reform led to many recipients exiting poverty-stricken neighborhoods to look for jobs, in some cases leaving stagnant urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest for more promising climes. Having found these jobs, they’ve been able to establish residency in more mixed neighborhoods where their children are likely to be exposed to better role models and soak up better values. Their exposure to crime has been lessened, and to better-quality schools and other public services has been enhanced.

Oh, the humanity.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.