Welfare Reform Comes to Missouri – Two Decades Later

On Tuesday, the House overrode Governor Nixon’s veto of Senate Bill 24, which will bring Missouri in line with other states’ requirements that welfare recipients must work if they are able-bodied.  There’s been teeth-gnashing and caterwauling from opponents. But their rhetoric doesn’t match past experience.

The venue and the names behind the debate have changed, but the fundamental arguments on welfare reform remain the same.  The claims made by opponents to SB 24 are the same as those who opposed federal welfare reform in the 1990s. For example, Peter Edelman wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that welfare reform was “awful” policy and would result in “serious injury to American children” as well as increases in malnutrition, crime, infant mortality, and drug and alcohol abuse. The Children’s Defense Fund claimed it would increase child poverty by more than 12 percent. These are just two of many examples.

These claims turned out to be completely wrong. Before welfare reform, never married mothers rarely worked outside the home and suffered from poverty rates of over 60 percent. Nationally, they were more than five times more likely than married couples to be poor.

In 1993, earnings accounted for less than a third of income for single mothers nationally and welfare payments equaled more than half. By 2000, those numbers had flipped. Nearly two-thirds of income came from earnings and welfare income fell to just 23 percent. Measures like these led the liberal Brookings Institute to trumpet that welfare reform was “a triumph for the federal government and the states – and even more for single mothers.”

Unfortunately, Missouri never fully joined the welfare reform revolution. Like most federal programs, welfare programs allow each individual state some (but not enough) flexibility in how it is administered. According to a non-partisan study published last year, Missouri ranked dead last for implementing Clinton-era welfare reforms. Missourians should be embarrassed by the fact that we were worst in the country for workforce participation by welfare recipients. Under current law, less than one in six able-bodied welfare recipients in our state work, go to school, or even just look for a job.   

Senate Bill 24 will change this by requiring that before any able-bodied Missourian receives welfare benefits they must either work or participate in job-training, community service programs, vocational training, education, or provide child-care services for a person participating in a community service program. The bill specifically protects children by providing that child care services remain unaffected. It also shortens the total amount of time a Missourian may receive welfare from sixty to forty-five months.

This week opponents claimed reducing the length of time a person could stay on welfare would exacerbate generational poverty. The data from federal welfare reform states refute such claims. It also ignores the long-term impact on children who see their parents on welfare programs for longer periods of time. A child raised in a household with an able-bodied parent who will not work or even look for work is far more likely to grow up to be an adult who lives the same way.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton famously explained “the American dream that we were all raised on,” that “if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you.” The reciprocal is also true, if an able-bodied person refuses to work, they should not expect a long-term handout.

We value work because it’s about far more than a paycheck. Work, even boring work, provides the worker with a sense of purpose and dignity. Work, a job well-done, is often its own reward. It’s critical for our physical and mental health. Missourians on welfare owe it not just to society, but also to themselves, and to their children, to work or at least make an effort. Senate Bill 24 ensures that Missouri takes its place alongside other states in insisting able-bodied welfare recipients work hard and play by society’s rules in exchange for temporary help.