Naysayers who predicted that forcing welfare recipients into the workplace would be a disaster have been proved wrong. Welfare rolls have been cut by nearly 60 percent, helped along by the booming economy of the late '90s. But as Congress considers reauthorizing the 1996 welfare-reform act, the sluggish economy has forced stiffer competition for jobs.
So what's happened to the welfare rolls? Surprising, they've generally remained stable.
The successes of those reforms have simply slowed. Thanks to job training, many of those coming off the welfare rolls gathered the latest skills to compete in the workforce and achieve financial independence.
Of course, many of those remaining on welfare still can't hold a job. Others in poverty simply avoid welfare by dealing in drugs or living with relatives. And if unemployment goes much above its current 5.8 percent level, welfare rolls could increase, as they have in some states.
But the bold idea of welfare-to-work has found a permanent place in federal-state policy. Expecting more of people actually does help raise their own standards and behavior. The issue before Congress is how much tougher governments should be in demanding more of those on welfare.
House Republicans passed a bill last month that would increase the work requirement to 40 hours a week. Current recipients must work 20 to 30 hours a week, depending on their children's ages. The bill also would end the option of counting time spent in job training as work.
The Senate, however, has yet to seriously take up the issue. It should look at an alternative idea of giving states more flexibility to tailor programs to individual needs, especially for those who must balance work, training, and child care. Such flexibility is important, because those still on welfare often are more serious cases and may need drug rehabilitation or other kinds of counseling.
Like many parents, single mothers coming off welfare into a job often face high child-care costs but don't earn enough to pay for them. This is a Catch-22 for even the middle class. But Congress should be cautious in creating a secondary form of welfare - child-care subsidies - without strict limits. Federal and state budgets can't afford another ballooning entitlement.
States know better than the federal government how to suit postwelfare requirements to local job markets, day-care situations, and available education. And state taxpayers can decide better than Congress how much to help the needy. This second round of welfare reform needs smarter policies, not more money.