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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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Monday, September 10, 2001

Volume 9, Number 7

Five Years Later, Welfare Reform’s
Success Belies Liberal Media Critics

Five years ago and in the midst of a re-election campaign (and after vetoing two similar bills), then-President Bill Clinton finally signed a welfare reform law that required able-bodied aid recipients to find jobs within two years and placed a five-year limit on total benefits. Congressional supporters predicted that the measure would reduce long-term welfare dependence, boost employment, reduce child poverty and lead to more children being raised in two-parent households.

But anti-reform activists such as those at the liberal Children’s Defense Fund declared that the new law would be a disaster. “There’s going to be a million children thrust into poverty by this bill,” the CDF’s Debbie Weinstein apocalyptically warned on the CBS Evening News on August 22, 1996, the day welfare reform became law.

Journalists sided with the doomsayers and condemned Clinton as a vote-hungry pawn of evil conservatives. “Does anyone else find it unnerving,” Time’s Jack White wrote in the magazine’s September 2, 1996 issue, “that only days before Bill Clinton signed a welfare-reform law that will plunge more than a million children into official poverty, he marked his 50th birthday with glitzy celebrations in New York City that added $10 million to his party’s bulging campaign war chest? Shades of Marie Antoinette, Newt Gingrich and Jesse Helms.”

“In light of the new welfare reform bill, do you think the children need more prayers than ever before?” Bryant Gumbel, then with NBC, asked the CDF’s Marian Wright Edelman, a reform foe, on the September 23, 1996 Today show.

But as the welfare reform law celebrated its fifth birthday last month, there was barely a mumble of acknowledgment from the media elite. That’s proof that the doomsayers were wrong; reform is working far better than liberals and the media predicted.

Back in 1996, the airwaves were filled with stories about the potentially-damaging consequences of welfare reform. “Once the welfare bill becomes law, millions of Americans will find their lives starting to change in startling and unwelcome ways,” then-CBS anchor Paula Zahn announced on the July 31 Evening News.

That night, ABC’s Nightline anchor, Chris Wallace, questioned Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala from the left: “You find yourself now in the position of being praised by Newt Gingrich, at the same time Senator Pat Moynihan calls this the most brutal piece of social policy since Reconstruction. Doesn’t that make you the slightest bit nervous?”

“Welfare reform could leave Los Angeles as penniless as the poor who line up each day for public assistance,” Mike Boettcher prophecied on the August 1 NBC Nightly News. That same evening, his CBS counterpart, Bill Whitaker, similarly warned that “in Los Angeles, America’s dream factory, many local politicians are calling the welfare reform bill a nightmare.”

Fast forward five years. On September 5, the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector and Patrick Fagan released “The Good News About Welfare Reform,” a paper detailing what’s actually happened since welfare reform became a reality. Instead of “plunging more than a million children into official poverty,” as journalists such as White predicted, there are now 2,300,000 fewer children living in poverty than there were in 1996, according to Rector and Fagan, with the strongest improvements among African American children. Overall, the Heritage paper reports, “there are 4.2 million fewer people living in poverty today” than there were five years ago.

The media predicted that welfare reform would mean more hunger. “For the first time in decades the federal government will no longer guarantee open?ended help to the poor,” CBS Evening News anchor Harry Smith moaned on Thanksgiving Day, 1996. “This could mean hunger in America will grow, even in places famous for food and plenty of it." On January 11, 1998, NBC Nightly News Sunday anchor Dawn Fratangelo, introducing a story by Roger O’Neil, similarly insisted that welfare reform meant empty stomachs: “While many former recipients may be working, often there is not enough money for one basic need — food.”

In his report, O’Neil warned about “the dark side of welfare reform.” He lectured his audience that “the demand for food is now greater than the supply. Those who serve the poor worry about empty shelves if welfare reform continues to leave the poor hungry, even if they have a job.”

That was nearly four years ago. Today, “according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are nearly 2 million fewer hungry children today than at the time welfare reform was enacted,” Rector and Fagan reported. Oops.

On August 12 of this year, a front-page story in the New York Times revealed that “five years after Congress overhauled welfare laws, with the intention of creating more two-parent families, the proportion of poor children living in households with two adults is on the rise, two studies say.” Reporter Blaine Harden went on to note that “while the sustained economic boom of the 1990s probably supported these trends, including the increase in two-parent families, there is considerable agreement, even among skeptical policy analysts, that welfare change deserves considerable credit.”

It’s often true that ABC, CBS and NBC crib their story ideas from the New York Times’s front page, but not this time. A weekend edition of the CBS Evening News anchored by Russ Mitchell briefly mentioned the Times report, as did CBS Sunday Morning anchor Charles Osgood, while ABC and NBC skipped the news altogether, along with any other status report on welfare reform’s first half decade.

But the success of a highly controversial policy is undeniably news, and understanding the depths of welfare reform’s achievement will inform future policy debates. In this case, liberal critics — journalists included — could not have been more wrong. As Rector and Fagan wrote, “In the half-decade since the welfare reform law was enacted...overall poverty, child poverty, black child poverty, poverty of single mothers, and child hunger have substantially declined. Employment of single mothers increased dramatically and welfare rolls plummeted. The share of children living in single-mother families fell, and more important, the share of children living in married-couple families grew, especially among black families.”

Five years ago, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw showed his deep skepticism when he presented Donna Shalala with the following scenario: “If you were a poor single mother in a poor rural state in America, without many resources, and you wanted to go to work, you want to do the right things, but there aren’t too many jobs for people who have real skills, wouldn’t you be slightly terrified looking into the next two years?”

Now that time has given Brokaw his answer, doesn’t he owe it to his viewers to pass it along?

Rich Noyes



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