Welfare reform has been a huge success. Even those who criticized the 1996 law now agree it is working. Welfare case loads are down, more families are working, family income is up, and child poverty has dropped.
The reason is simple: state flexibility. In six short years, the states undid a 60-year-old federally prescribed welfare system and created their own programs, which are far better for poor families and for taxpayers.
But now it appears the Bush administration is having second thoughts about empowering the states. The administration's proposal would return to the federally prescribed welfare system. It would impose rules on how states work with each family, forcing a "one size fits all" model for a system that, for the past six years, has produced individualized state systems that have been successful in states across the country.
I know that my friend Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson did a wonderful job of reforming Wisconsin's welfare system. But that doesn't mean the Wisconsin system would be as effective in Vermont. My state, the State of Minnesota, is also a national model for welfare reform. It is a national model, in part because we make sure welfare reform gets families out of poverty. How do we do this? Exactly the way President Bush and Secretary Thompson would want us to do it: By putting people to work. But here's the rub: It matters how families on welfare get to work. In Minnesota, we work with each family one on one and use a broad range of services to make sure the family breadwinner gets and keeps a decent job. For some families, it might take a little longer to arrive at what the President is comfortable with, but the results are overwhelmingly positive. A three-year follow-up of Minnesota families on welfare found that more than three-quarters have left welfare or gone to work. Families that have left welfare for work earn more than nine dollars an hour, higher than comparable figures in other states. The federal government has twice cited Minnesota as a leader among the states in job retention and advancement.
An independent evaluation of Minnesota's welfare-reform pilot found it to be perhaps the most successful welfare-reform effort in the nation. The evaluation found Minnesota's program not only increased employment and earnings but also reduced poverty, reduced domestic abuse, reduced behavioral problems with kids, and improved their school performance. It also found that marriage and marital stability increased as a result of higher family incomes.
The Bush administration's proposal would have Minnesota set all this aside and focus instead on make-work activities. In Minnesota, we believe that success in welfare reform is about helping families progress to a self-sufficiency that will last. While it may be politically appealing to demand that all welfare recipients have shovels in their hands, it makes sense to me that the states, rather than the federal government, are in the better position to make those decisions.
We know what we are doing in Minnesota works. We have evidence. And our way of doing things has broad support in the State. Why should we be forced by the federal government to put our system at risk?
I believe in accountable and responsive government, and have no problem with the federal government holding states accountable for results in welfare reform. But I also believe that, in this case, the people closest to the problem should be trusted to solve the problem and be left alone if they have.
Secretary Thompson, with the blessing of the President, seems to be taking us down a road that violates the tenets of states' rights.
Say it ain't so, Tommy. As long as it's working, why not let the states do our own thing?
Jesse Ventura is Governor of the State of Minnesota. Ventura won the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial election under the label of the Reform Party. Currently, he is affiliated with the Independence Party of Minnesota.
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