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Silence on Welfare Reform
As published in the July 2002 issue of The World & I

Six years ago, much of the news media--particularly the journalists who work at the three major broadcast networks and leading newspapers such as the New York Times -- couldn't get enough of the story about the historic welfare reform law that a Republican Congress passed and Democratic President Bill Clinton signed.

According to a careful media analysis, the dominant print and electronic news outlets relied overwhelmingly on the pessimistic predictions of "welfare advocates" and cast welfare reform as a dangerous gamble. Sound bite after sound bite warned of the potential harm as politicians ended the system that guaranteed cash assistance to poor families with children.

This year, all indications are that Congress will vote to reauthorize the law, creating a new welfare reform that in its sweep will strongly resemble the one passed in 1996. But apart from whatever legislation is eventually enacted, what may be most striking about the current welfare debate may be the remarkable absence of journalistic interest in the topic. In fact, the news media's silence speaks volumes, testifying to the emergence of a broad new consensus surrounding a law that was vilified by opponents when it was originally passed.

"Welfare reform has been an obvious success," the New York Times admitted in an April 8 editorial, even as the newspaper cautioned against President George W. Bush's proposals to increase work requirements on states. Six years earlier, the Times editors had blasted the very same legislation as "atrocious," predicting it would only add to the misery of the poor. "This is not reform, it is punishment," the Times wrote on August 1, 1996, adding that "the [Clinton] administration's staff estimates that [the bill's] provisions will throw a million more children into poverty."

The three broadcast networks have hardly mentioned this year's welfare debate, continuing a pattern of silence that began long before September 11 lifted national security to the top of America's news agenda. When the networks do mention welfare reform, it is to acknowledge that the ideological battle of the mid-1990s will not be reprised. "The big debate as to whether or not welfare recipients should be required to work, that's over," ABC White House reporter Terry Moran informed his audience on February 26. "Across the political spectrum, there's agreement that welfare reform has worked."

 

'Something dreadful and terrible'

Six years ago, it was a very different story, as the media gave favored treatment to the arguments of welfare reform's critics. Supporters of the new welfare reform law condemned welfare as a tried and failed government attempt to fight poverty. They argued that instead of promoting work and self-sufficiency by providing temporary assistance to needy families, the decades-old Aid to Families with Dependent Children actually trapped the poor in a system that encouraged dependency and illegitimacy, even as the ranks of those below the poverty line swelled. Their proposed remedy: new federal welfare laws that would encourage states to experiment with alternatives that would limit benefits and impose work requirements. After he rejected two other similar bills, Clinton announced on July 31, 1996, that he would sign the third welfare reform bill.

Antireform activists, such as those at the liberal Children's Defense Fund (CDF), declared that the new law would be a disaster, and the mass media trumpeted their views. "There's going to be a million children thrust into poverty by this bill," the CDF's Debbie Weinstein warned on the CBS Evening News on August 22, 1996, the day welfare reform became law. The New York Times carried the condemnation of CDF President Marian Wright Edelman, who declared that ending the guarantee of a federal welfare check to those in need will leave "a moral blot on [Clinton's] presidency and on our nation that will never be forgotten."

The liberal criticism of the Democratic president was predicated on the assumption that welfare reform would fail. Pundits who were generally sympathetic toward Clinton declared outrage at his complicity in making welfare reform law. Correctly predicting that the president would not veto a third welfare reform measure, panelist Margaret Carlson declared on CNN's Capital Gang on July 27, 1996, that "the welfare bill is still a terrible bill! The only reason Clinton would sign it is because the Republicans are pushing him into a corner. He said he would end welfare as we know it; he's going to end welfare and bring in something dreadful and terrible and awful for political advantage!"

At the 1996 Democratic National Convention, network reporters used words like "betrayal" as they probed the depths of liberal anger. "You voted against the welfare reform bill," CNN's Wolf Blitzer reminded Sen. Carol Mosley-Braun (D-Illinois) during a convention interview. "Do you feel that he sort of betrayed some of those values that you expressed? How can you go forward now and support him after his decision to sign that welfare reform bill into law?"

"Does anyone else find it unnerving," Jack White wrote in Time'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 fiftieth 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."

Many leading journalists apparently rejected conservative arguments that the reformed welfare system would do a better job of leading people out of poverty. "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 Edelman on the September 23, 1996, Today show.

 

Tallying the media scorecard

Reporters can betray their bias on an issue by the types of questions they ask and the experts whose views they solicit. In 1996, of course, journalists could not know whether experience would ultimately vindicate welfare reform's opponents or its supporters. But most of the media elite apparently did not trust that the proposed changes would, in fact, improve the lives of most aid recipients; if they did, they probably would have shown increasing frustration at those who lobbied against the bill's enactment, as they did with opponents of the highly touted campaign-finance reform law passed in 2002.

Instead, the airwaves were filled with stories about the potentially damaging consequences of welfare reform, indicating that journalists perceived the story to be one of the new challenges to the nation's poor, not about a genuine effort to provide more meaningful assistance. "Once the welfare bill becomes law, millions of Americans will find their lives starting to change in startling and unwelcome ways," thenCBS anchor Paula Zahn asserted on the July 31, 1996, CBS Evening News after Clinton's declaration that he would sign the bill.

That night on ABC's Nightline, fill-in anchor Chris Wallace told Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, "You find yourself now in the position of being praised by Newt Gingrich, at the same time Sen. 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 stated on the August 1, 1996, 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." Whitaker and Boettcher were typical, as the media stressed welfare reform's peril for the poor, not its promise.

Fast-forward to 2001. As the welfare law passed its fifth anniversary, the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector and Patrick Fagan released The Good News About Welfare Reform, a research report detailing welfare reform's track record. Instead of "plunging more than a million children into official poverty," as journalists such as White predicted, there are now 2.3 million fewer children living in poverty than there were in 1996, according to Rector and Fagan, with the strongest improvements among black children. Overall, the Heritage paper reported, "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 noted 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 stated 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 in 1998.

As Rector and Fagan reported last year, "According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are nearly two million fewer hungry children today than at the time welfare reform was enacted."

 

Uninterested in good news?

On August 12, 2001, 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' 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. ABC and NBC skipped the news altogether. As with so much involving welfare reform, critics of the new law made headlines with their dire prognostications six years ago, while the good news about welfare reform's achievements has received, at best, only incidental media coverage.

But after a heated national debate such as in 1996, it would seem reasonable to expect the national media to document the actual performance of a highly controversial policy such as welfare reform. If nothing else, such reporting could at least provide news organizations with a useful "reality check" of their own reporting. For instance, reporters showed deep skepticism of claims that more restrictive welfare rules would be beneficial to recipients. But a research report published in February by June O'Neill and Anne Hill, both economics professors at Baruch College at the City University of New York, found that welfare reform has had a profoundly positive effect on the lives of women. "Between passage of the act and June 2001," they wrote, "the number of families on welfare declined by 53 percent. Contrary to the expectations of many welfare reform critics, most of the women heading these families went to work."

That's also what Rector and Fagan found: "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."

The news media play an important role in public policy debates, and reporters serve the public well when they challenge each side with the toughest questions of their opponents. During the welfare debate six years ago, it would have been incomplete and biased for journalists to omit or downplay the arguments of liberals who feared that welfare reform would harm poor families, just as it was unfair to deemphasize the arguments of conservatives that reform would be an improvement over an old-style welfare program that had failed to fight poverty and improve lives.

The problem then was that too many journalists seemed to accept the liberals' partisan arguments and predictions as unassailable fact, rather than one side of a complicated story. As much as any major story in recent years, the media's coverage of welfare reform illustrates the need for journalists to remain fair and balanced in their coverage of ideological issues. Otherwise, they risk losing credibility when the "news" they present their audiences cannot stand the test of time.

 

Richard Noyes is the director of the Media Research Center's Free Market Project. He is the coeditor, with the Cato Institute's Stephen Moore, of Dollars & Nonsense: Correcting the News Media's Top Economic Myths, published by the Media Research Center (2001).

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