Ten Years of Welfare Reform Ten years ago, President Clinton signed the landmark welfare reform law. In his words, it would make welfare "a second chance, not a way of life." Critics charged it would make life even harder for the poor. Guests examine a decade of welfare reform and changing attitudes about public assistance.
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Ten Years of Welfare Reform

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Ten Years of Welfare Reform

Ten Years of Welfare Reform

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Ten years ago, conservatives cheered as President Clinton signed a law to transform welfare. Public assistance would no longer be an entitlement, but a limited, temporary program to help people in bad times while they looked for work.

Supporters said it would end a culture of dependency, but many critics called it cruel. They worried that families would fall through the cracks and that poverty rates would soar, especially for children.

A decade later, statistics indicate that welfare reform has been broadly successful. Caseloads dropped by 60 percent, many former recipients did follow the slogan posted on many welfare office walls: a job, a better job, a career. Many others, though, are now among the working poor and struggle to get good childcare and keep a job to get an education or job training. And many still depend on Medicaid, food stamps, and other government programs.

Later on in the program, we'll talk with Michael Juergs, the biographer of Gunter Grass who, like many Germans, was stunned to hear that the great writer confessed that he'd served in the Waffen SS in the last month of the Second World War.

But first, 10 years of welfare reform. If you've been on welfare at any point in the past decade, how has it worked out for you? If you administer welfare, what's changed? Our number, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

And we begin with New York Times staff writer Katherine Boo who joins us from her home here in Washington, D.C.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. KATHERINE BOO (Staff Writer, The New Yorker): Hi, Neal. And I should say it's The New Yorker.

CONAN: The New Yorker. Yes, of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Apologize for that. You've been writing about families on welfare for nearly two decades. How has welfare reform changed their lives?

Ms. BOO: Well, you know, I think that just statistics get at some of the broad contours of the change. And, you know, and I think that unlike some conservatives, I'm not ready to call for champagne and parades just yet…

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. BOO: …because, we have some recent trends that I think are a little worrisome. For instance, you have, I think, 750,000 kids today living in extreme poverty compared to more kids in extreme poverty than there were five years ago.

CONAN: But fewer than there were 10 years ago.

Ms. BOO: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, and that's it's - but I think the extreme poverty numbers is different. However, there's no question that we've seen a not quite dramatic, but still significant decrease in poverty. And I think, almost more importantly, I think that we've seen some profound changes in expectations among people who live in the inner city.

CONAN: By that, what do you mean?

Ms. BOO: I mean, you know, I was spending time recently with some extremely, extremely, poor children - black and Hispanic - in Denver. These are 16 or 17-year-old kids. And, you know, I've yet to find a person who - in calculating his future is seeing welfare as a credible means of support…


Ms. BOO: …in the future. I mean, even people who qualify aren't signing up for it now, which is something striking we can see in the nationwide statistics. In part because it's stigmatized. Even second graders are, you know, badgering their mothers, mom, don't be on welfare. It's embarrassing.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. BOO: And second is the perception is there's not much now, and caseworkers will hassle you if you get it. There's going to be less of it soon, so why bother?

CONAN: Hmm. You're still in touch with a lot of the families you've been writing about over the years.

Ms. BOO: Oh, yeah.

CONAN: Ten years after being told they had to enter the workforce, how are they doing?

Ms. BOO: You know, it's - I should say that, you know, we're sometimes, as journalists, too ready to generalize from the anecdotal.

CONAN: Sure.

Ms. BOO: But for the women whose lives I've followed carefully, what we see is basically along the lines of the statistics, which they have marginally higher incomes. And they've been exposed to I'd say far more of the world than they would have seen if they'd stayed home in the housing projects where they lived when I first met them.

I think most of them feel more hopeful about their future and about their children's futures then they did. But all the women I know, with one exception, have remained short of the middle class. And I think only a few have been able to raise the money it would take to move out of their neighborhoods and into neighborhoods with better social services and schools. So what we've got is people who are leaving their children on their own to negotiate parts of the inner cities that haven't been reformed in the last 10 years.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. BOO: But what that means on a, you know, on a specific level is every family of every income that has children struggles between work and family. But generally, with the middle class, you've got institutions - daycare and schools - that generally support children's, you know, economic and - I mean, intellectual and social development. And in the inner cities that's not the case. So you have, you know, your choice if you're a worker, like my friend Elizabeth Jones…

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. BOO: …who, she has a choice. She can leave her child in a subsidized daycare center, you know, when she knows that the staff members after hours are buying crack on 57th and Blaine. Or she can say, you know, to her 9 year old and 7 year old, and 6 year old here's your house key. Run home, lock the door, don't open it till I get back. You know, and these kids are essentially raising themselves.

And so in the long-term, I think the positive benefits that a mother is going to get from work - self-esteem and exposures to mainstream culture, the benefits of higher education - those are real benefits. But family life in the short-term, I think, isn't very pretty.

CONAN: Yeah. You did write specifically about her that one of the things that she thought about was, you know, what would've happened if I was - if I had never left welfare, if I was still on welfare? And one of the things you write about was that she would be a less of a role model, especially for her daughter.

Ms. BOO: Right. Exactly. Exactly. And, you know, and she's bringing the things that she gets in the world back to her home.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. BOO: And one of the things, you know, if you - you know, remembering back before 1996, you know, what the world was like before people on welfare - and Elizabeth, particularly. I mean, people on welfare, they knew the system wasn't working as well as the policy experts did. And they readily admitted that they had - cheating was rampant, that people were working off the books, you know.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. BOO: There was always like, the woman next door who was doing the cheating, not the woman in the living room you were talking to. But there were real incentives to work - to stay home because…

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. BOO: …if you, you know, if you got a job, you lived in public housing - all of a sudden, your rent might triple. Or if you had an asset - like if you got a decent car to get to work - that might make you too rich in the eyes of the welfare office to qualify for benefits. So generally, people stayed home, and they, you know, they kept their aspirations to themselves. And they stayed isolated. You know, and next door the woman was making the same choice, next door the woman was making the same choice. So, you know, there was this sense that tomorrow would look no better or worse than it looks today. You know, this isolation that got passed on to their children.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Let's get a caller on the line. And if you'd like to join us, the number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. This is Leah(ph). Leah's calling us from Muskegon in Michigan.

LEAH (Caller): Hi. I do agree with the speaker just now that it is difficult sometimes to move up off of welfare…

CONAN: Mm hmm.

LEAH: …because once you do hit a certain point, you're at a tipping point where you can either get off of welfare or they might stigmatize you with well, you made just too much money to qualify. And so then it's difficult to make ends meet. But I do feel that if once you know that you're able to get off of assistance, then if you take that step you help the whole system by allowing other people to benefit from it.

CONAN: Are you speaking from experience, Leah?

LEAH: Yeah, I've been on welfare for about three years, and I'm just now gradually getting off of it. I'll be off of Medicaid as of September. But it's taken me a lot of time looking for a good job to get there, you know, to get a job that offers benefits.

CONAN: And did you…

Ms. BOO: Did you find a good job?

LEAH: Yes, I did. I just started it. I've been there about a week, and I'm hoping everything goes well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BOO: Good luck.

CONAN: Good luck, Leah. Congratulations.

LEAH: Thank you.

Ms. BOO: You know, she's been through this - there's this period, you know, that a friend of mine calls I'm too rich for the send the kid to camp program, but I'm too poor to send my kid to camp.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. BOO: Or most typically, I'm too rich for Medicaid but too poor to go to the doctor because my job doesn't offer benefits. And I think that that's the period of time - there's a period of time, whether it's five years or seven years, or if people are lucky, one year - you know, where people just really have to struggle through. And it sounds like she's come out the other side of it.

CONAN: Mm hmm. As we look at the world ahead - and clearly, there are still problems - but does anybody suggest going back?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BOO: I don't think so. And I don't even think that the women I know who are still struggling in the projects suggest going back. In part because, you know, because of this stigma, you know, which is felt so powerfully. There's shame to welfare now that there didn't used to be. And, you know, I mean and that has plenty of negative consequences, but it does stop people from thinking of it as a good thing. It's something you have to suffer through if you require it.

CONAN: Katherine Boo, thanks very much.

Ms. BOO: My pleasure.

CONAN: Katherine Boo, a staff writer at the New Yorker Magazine. She joined us from her home in Washington, D.C.

Today, the Heritage Foundation here in Washington is holding a conference to mark ten years of welfare reform. Our next three guests are kind enough to take time out from that conference to join us from the Heritage Foundation's studio for this program.

The first is Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Ten years ago, he helped draft the welfare reform bill. And in 2002, served as an advisor to the White House on welfare. He joins us from the studios at the Heritage Foundation. And thanks very much for taking time out to be with us today.

Mr. RON HASKINS (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): Glad to be here.

CONAN: And do you think welfare reform has worked out the way you hoped?

Mr. HASKINS: Actually, no. It's been much more successful than I hoped. It was clear that conservatives thought it would be more successful than many liberals did.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. HASKINS: But it has exceeded everybody's expectations. The left made apocalyptic predictions about - Senator Moynihan said children would be dying in the street freezing and they'd send carts around in the morning to pick them up - is a little colorful. Senator Lautenberg said on the Senate floor that 13-year-old girls would be reduced to prostitution. The predictions were amazing, and none of those predictions have come true.

Welfare - there are issues, and there are still remaining challenges. But the roles have dropped like a rock for literally the first time in history. Women have gone to work in droves. The real heroes in welfare reform are low-income mothers that Kate Boo talked about who went to work in low-wage jobs. And child poverty fell very substantially. Kate Boo did not use the term substantial, but it was the first sustained decline in poverty. Between 1994 and 2000 was the first sustained decline in poverty since the early 1970s. And black child poverty and poverty among kids in female-headed families reached the lowest ever.

CONAN: How much…

Mr. HASKINS: And we…

CONAN: I was just going to add…

Mr. HASKINS: I was just going to add one thing, that one of the real concerns on both sides - but especially among liberals - was that children would be hurt. We have extensive information on children now. We have information of several different types. We have information, experimental information, which is the highest-quality information from studies of control groups compared to experimental groups. And there's slight evidence that preschool kids are helped and that older kids are somewhat hurt, but neither effect is very bid. So kids appear to be pretty much neutral.

CONAN: Okay, stay with us. We're going to have to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll continue talking about ten years of welfare reform. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. E-mail is talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about welfare. It's 10 years since President Clinton signed the landmark Welfare Reform Bill. We want to hear from those of you affected by this legislation. If you've been on welfare and got off, you're on it now, give us a call and tell us how the new rules work for you. New - well, 10 years ago rules.

Our guest is Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who helped write that legislation a decade ago. And Mr. Haskins, you were talking about the success of this program, and to some degree people say a lot of that success has been due to the fairly good economy of the past 10 years.

Mr. HASKINS: I believe we actually have almost unanimous agreement among analysts and people who follow this issue, including politicians, that there are three important factors that account for its success. Welfare reform is one of them. Think of that as kind of the stick. The second is a great economy, which was part of the cure with a lot of available jobs and even some small opportunities for advancement. We should talk about that.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. HASKINS: And then the third thing is Congress is not usually accused of having vision. But if you start in the mid-1980s and follow through the mid-1990s when the welfare reform bill was passed, Congress made numerous changes in very important legislation that helped families not on welfare - low-income working families. Their benefits were dramatically increased, usually on a bipartisan basis. The single most important program was earned income tax credit, which provides working families with up to $4,500 in cash benefit. Food stamps was changed. Medicaid was dramatically changed that so kids are almost always covered by Medicaid and the mothers are usually covered for a year.

So there were a whole series of changes in the work support system that help low-income families, and that's the third very important part of welfare reform. Now the argument is which of those was the most important. And, of course, people on the left usually say that the economy and that the work supports are probably the most important, and people on the right say that welfare reform is the most important. And it'll never be solved.

CONAN: Do you believe, though, that that culture of dependence which so many people talked about ten years ago - do you think that's been altered?

Mr. HASKINS: Absolutely. There's no question about it. Kate Boo made that very clear. I think Kate would be a person who would not be considered a great friend of welfare reform. And many people on the left who were strongly opposed to the bill have made statements that they think that dependency has been reduced. I think the question is then that the left still brings up frequently is that at what cost, and that there are too many problems that have resulted -poverty has not come down enough, it should have come down more.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. HASKINS: Poverty's gone up a little bit, now the - as a result of the 2001 recession, but it's still 20 percent below where it was when the decline started in 1994. So, I think even left would say that there is a huge increase in dependency. And I think the single most important part of that - this is very difficult to study - but it's a psychological change. It's a cultural change. It's something in the atmosphere that it is not appropriate to be on welfare. Kate used the term - I think she said it's shame - there's shame associated with it. And I think there's a lot of truth in that. People feel that they should not be on welfare, that they should be in the American tradition of independence and self-support and earn their own money.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Dave. Dave's calling us from Benzonia in Michigan.

DAVE (Caller): Hi. How you doing?

CONAN: All right.

DAVE: Thought I'd explained it before. I can only speak in my own instance.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVE: Okay, two months ago I lost my job. I got injured. I was forced to go on welfare. And I, you know - I really appreciate - they gave me some food stamps. They were able to give me cooking gas - excuse me - and pay off my electricity. But they won't help me with my rent, and I'm currently $700 in rent. They won't give me any money in advance, so I can't buy toiletries, food for my cats. They want me to find work, but they'll give me no money. So how do they expect me to put fuel in my car to be able to go out and look for a job?

CONAN: So you think that this is not working for you?

DAVE: This is not working for me. I want to work. You know, I've worked most of my life, and I moved up here hoping I could start a new life. But it hasn't worked out that way.

CONAN: Ron Haskins, obviously, you can't speak to Dave's case. And, of course, every state administers its welfare programs differently. That was part of the reforms.

Mr. HASKINS: I can speak somewhat to Dave's case. I think his case would have been very similar before welfare reform and after welfare reform. Males have generally been shut out from cash welfare, and the benefits that he did mention - food stamps, Medicaid and rent - were somewhat changed by welfare reform. Medicaid was dramatically expanded, especially for children. And other reforms passed in subsequent years mean that Medicaid coverage of children has expanded greatly. Food stamps has changed some, but men like Dave are still qualified for food stamps.

Rent has always been a huge problem because it's a different kind of program than other welfare programs. People coy up. And when the money's gone they don't get the benefit, whereas for food stamps and Medicaid and the old welfare program, if you were eligible you got it no matter what. Government had to appropriate the money, but with rent they don't. So I don't think Dave represents any relationship with welfare reform.

CONAN: Okay. Dave, good luck to you.

DAVE: Oh, here's one more thing.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVE: They say they won't help me with my rent until I get an eviction notice. But say I should get a job tomorrow or next week - I'm $700 in the hole. Now how am I going to get out of the hole now? I mean, minimum wage isn't going to pay for it. So I'm destined, definitely, to be in the hole for years to come. You know, I don't ask for much. I just ask for a little bit so I can get out there and, you know, try to get out on my own. And I'm not given that opportunity. And welfare's supposed to help people.

Mr. HASKINS: It's easy to be sympathetic with a situation like Dave's, and I think most people are. But American social policy has never - with the exception of unemployment insurance - and we'd have to hear more about this case to find out why Dave does not have unemployment insurance - but American welfare has never done a good job on covering single males with benefits, and I doubt that it's in the cards, either.

CONAN: Dave, good luck.

DAVE: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. And Ron Haskins, thank you. We know we've taken enough of your time. You want to get back to the conference. We appreciate your joining us.

Mr. HASKINS: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it.

CONAN: Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was with us from that conference we mentioned at the Heritage Foundation. Also with us from the studios there is Mark Greenberg. He's director for the Task Force on Poverty at the Center for American Progress, and it's good of you to be with us today.

Mr. MARK GREENBERG (Director for the Task Force on Poverty at the Center for American Progress): And thanks very much.

CONAN: And do you see the picture as confidently as Ron Haskins does?

Mr. GREENBERG: Well, I think there's a pretty broad agreement along the main outlines of the story, but there is some significant disagreement about how good it is, whether it could have been better, and what the costs have been for what we've accomplished.

Broadly, the outline really is that during the late 1990s, we saw a very big increase in employment among single-parent families. We saw a big decline in welfare at that time, and we saw child poverty fall. There is this continuing discussion about how much of that was due to welfare reform, how much was due to the economy, and then how much were due to a whole set of other policies that made it - provided much more help for people when they went to work. In addition to tax help in that time there was a tripling of childcare help, which made a huge difference for many families. The minimum wage was increased. The federal child support enforcement system started working much better to help single-parent families. Healthcare was expanded. So a whole set of things happened all at the same time, and they all moved in the direction of more people working, poverty falling.

What's also really striking, though, is that when those happened, the welfare roles fell much more than employment increased and much more than poverty fell. And pretty clearly, what happened in a lot of states in this period was there was more help for people who were working. And it became much harder for families who were without jobs - who didn't have a source of income - to get help from the system. So it became much more restrictive for families who needed help. And as a result of that, a significant number of families found it increasingly difficult to get help in times of need. So that was during the period when things were at their best - in the late 90s, roughly to about 2000 or 2001. Unfortunately, the nation's progress really ground to a halt right around that time, and over the last several years of this decade, the indicators that many people care about have really gone in reverse.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. GREENBERG: Employment has fallen, poverty has gone up for four years in a row. Child poverty has gone up for four years in a row. And at the same time, welfare roles continue to fall so there is this bigger and bigger gap between the number of poor children and the number who actually get help from the system.

CONAN: Underlying - there's sort of a fundamental shift in the way you think about the program now, though - from a financial assistance program 10 years ago to a job assistance program. And that's unlikely to change, is it?

Mr. GREENBERG: No, it really isn't. And when you asked before, would anybody go back to the old system, I don't think very many people - if anyone - would. And in fact, during the 1990s, there wasn't a lot of defense in the old system. The question was what should take its place.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. GREENBERG: And at that time, I would say there was a pretty broad consensus that it was important to turn welfare into a system that did a much better job of connecting families with employment when they could work. The big disputes were ones around what kind of help should be provided - should there be access to education and training to help families get better jobs? Should there be childcare help? What kinds of services ought to be provided for families that have the most serious problems? And so much of the discussion at that time was really - how do we turn this into a system that helps connect people with work? And the biggest criticism for many is that while the system does do more to connect people with work, at the same time, it makes - it provides - it makes it very, very difficult in many states for families who need help to get it.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. GREENBERG: I think the other part of the concern may - is that in the ‘90s, when there was the shift to the new system, a lot of the emphasis was on saying - focus on getting the first job possible. Don't have access to education and training. Don't help families get better jobs. Connect to the first job possible, and families will move up in a way before us over time.

CONAN: Well, that would seem like culture of work. Yes.

MR. GREENBERG: Well, it was, but the slogan that you described at the beginning of the program about a job, a better job, a career is a terrific slogan. Unfortunately, in a lot of places, it's just a slogan.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. GREENBERG: Because the vision of putting in place a system that was really going to help low wage workers - not just welfare recipients, but other low wage workers move up into better jobs - largely didn't happen. And so, as a result, when we look at the situations of both families that have left welfare but also other low wage workers, we find a very large number of people who are persistently in jobs that don't pay a lot, that don't have healthcare, that don't have employee-provided pensions, that don't provide sick leave or a paid vacation time. And the movement up into better jobs largely remains an unfulfilled promise.

CONAN: We're talking about welfare 10 years after welfare reform was signed into law by President Clinton. Our guest is Mark Greenberg, Director for the Task Force on Poverty at the Center for American Progress. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation, from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line. Joe is on the line with us from San Francisco.

JOE (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Joe.

JOE: Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yup, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JOE: Yeah, you know, I've been on both sides of this. I've received welfare and I've also - I've given out welfare. I was a social worker for the city of San Francisco in the ‘90s.

CONAN: And Joe, in which order did you do those things?

JOE: Well, first I was a social worker. And then I was a drug addict, and then I was homeless and I went into prison. And then I came out and I got on assistance. And now, I'm in graduate school to be a nurse.

CONAN: Okay.

JOE: So, you know, when I was giving out assistance, you know, what I saw was a lot of people on the street. A lot of drug addiction. You know, the housing we provided - you know, people would often take the vouchers for housing. They would - still have them back to the hotels. Then they would get the money, they would go out in the street and would use more drugs. So - and, you know, nobody really wanted to work. And in San Francisco, nothing has changed. Everybody, you know, that was homeless in the ‘90s is still dead - they're still homeless. They're dead now. And the only reason I think I succeeded was because I'm white and I was already educated when I was coming up off the street. But I got a real appreciation of how incredibly difficult it is once you're on the bottom to come back up.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

JOE: I don't think anybody can really understand fully until they go through it. How difficult it is - the system is so difficult to work. It is so inaccessible and…

CONAN: And you, if anybody, ought to be able to know how to work it since you still work in it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOE: Right, but it's almost - you know, it's almost easier to stay on the street than it is to get back up off the street.

CONAN: Yeah, and Mark Greenberg, the system has improved. It's changed for the better, but nobody ever said it was easy.

JOE: No, it's not easy.

CONAN: Mark, Mark, go ahead please.

Mr. GREENBERG: Uh-huh. Sure. It's not easy. I think as - you know, Joe describes his situation, I mean, what we would want is a system where when an individual or a family comes in - that people are actively working with them to figure out what the situation is. What are the problems? What kind of help or services could make a difference? If it is a substance abuse situation, it's important to address that.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. GREENBERG: If someone is homeless, then one thing that we want in place is services that try to help them get into stable housing. Because if the hope is for somebody to get a job, a lot of times if they don't have a place to live, the first critical stage is in fact to stabilize their housing situation. So you want a system that has that flexibility and that focus on how do you help address the real problems people are facing.

CONAN: Joe, good luck.

JOE: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. All right, here's an e-mail question we have from Helen in Colonial Beach, Virginia. Could you ask your guest if statistics show any correlation between welfare reform and reduction in the number of out-of-wedlock births?

Mr. GREENBERG: The best indications on that - during the 1990s, the share of births in the nation that are out-of-wedlock essentially leveled off. It had been growing for a period of time. It reached roughly about a third of births out-of-wedlock, and then it leveled off. So there are arguments about what will welfare may have played around that. The leveling off really started happening several years before the 1996 law. It is clear that at a time where there has been really this plummeting of the number of families receiving assistances, as we talked about before, 60 percent decline over that period. There certainly haven't been a notable reduction in the share of births out of wedlock - but there has been this leveling.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Well, thanks very much for taking time out of the conference to be with us today.

Mr. GREENBERG: Thank you.

CONAN: Mark Greenberg, the director of the Taskforce on Poverty at the Center for American Progress. And he was with us from the studios at the Heritage Foundation where, as we mentioned earlier, there's a conference underway to look at welfare 10 years after the reform act was signed. We're going to continue this conversation after the break. Plus, we'll speak with the biographer of Nobel-Laureate Gunter Grass. The author confessed this week to his role in the Waffen SS in the last months of the Second World War, something he kept secret for all this years. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And here are the headlines for some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News.

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And President Bush has signed the Pension Protection Act of 2006. The new law is designed to shore up the Federal Government's insurance program for private sector pensions, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. Details on those stories and of course much more later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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Right now, we're talking about 10 years of welfare reform - what's worked, what hasn't and what new changes are in store.

Last month, the Bush administration announced new welfare regulations that tighten the definition of what's considered work. Joining us now from the studios at the Heritage Foundation is Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He also helped the - write the welfare reform of 1996. And Wade Horn, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. WADE HORN (Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services): It's good to be with you again, Neal.

CONAN: What exactly did the regulations announced last month do? This was in a reauthorization program.

Mr. HORN: Well, the primary thing it did is tighten the definitions of what counts as work in welfare-to-work programs. According to the General Accountability Office - an independent agency of the Federal Government - states were inconsistently defining what counts as work. And some states - according to GAO - was, let's say, a little bit too generous in what they would count as work.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. HORN: So some states counted things like bed rest or getting a massage or doing an errand for a friend as work. And what we wanted to do is ensure that we fully engage everybody that's on welfare in activities that are either about preparing to go to work, looking for work, or actually working.

CONAN: Mm hmm. These are regulations are set to take effect in October. Many job training and drug treatment programs are discounted as work or are only qualified for very short periods of time. Where's the benefit of that?

Mr. HORN: Well, actually under the old system - which is still operational - neither substance abuse treatment nor rehabilitation activities nor mental health counseling is actually listed as a activity that can count against something called the state work participation rate.

That doesn't mean that a state cannot in fact engage their clients in those activities and use welfare funds to do so. They could do that before the regulations. They can do that now. In fact, what these regulations do for the very first time is explicitly allow those activities to count as job - what's called job readiness activities. So rather than a restriction of the ability of states to actually count those activities, what the new rules do is for the first time explicitly allow states to count those as work activities for a specified period of time.

But it doesn't mean that if a - in a particular, individual case somebody needs more than what's countable under the law - that the state can continue to engage that person in those activities.

CONAN: Broadly, though - as one of the authors of this legislation, of these ideas - today, are you celebrating success?

Mr. HORN: Well, I think we're halfway there but we're not all the way there. I agree with all - everyone else who said we've got some positive indicators of success, but also there's work to be done.

I believe that there are three major things we have to do. First of all, we need to more fully engage those who are on welfare in activities that help lead them to self-sufficiency. The fact of the matter is that in a typical month, almost 60 percent of welfare recipients today - adult welfare recipients - are not engaged in either activities that are involved in preparing to go to work, looking for work, or actually working. And we can do better than that.

I also do agree that we have to spend more time worrying about those who have left welfare, those who are now in work but are on the margins. And so what we need to do is focus more of our resources to help them sustain employment and to advance in the workplace. The problem is we're not - we don't know how to do that very well, and most experiments that look at different ways of actually accomplishing that find very little impact.

And then finally, I think that as a child psychologist the thing we need to do in the next phase is worry more about improving the wellbeing of children. You know, welfare originally was called the Aid to Dependent Children Program. It was designed to be a program to help children. And while it is certainly no small accomplishment that welfare reform has not caused problems for children -and certainly it's a success that 1.4 million fewer children are living in poverty today than in 1996 - but it isn't a sufficient accomplishment, either. What we need to do is focus more of our time on actually improving things for kids, not just holding them neutral.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, Carol. Carol's with us from Augusta, Georgia.

CAROL (Caller): Yes, my question is I've worked for the last 20-something years. I have a son now that was in college, and I have a 5-year-old. I went to apply for food stamps. They told me my income was too high. I could not use my son as a dependent, even though he's in school. They're basing his school loans and stuff on my income. What am I supposed to do when I can't even get any help with childcare for my child? I can't get any food stamps to go in my home, but I have a car. They're going to use that against me, but I can't use my son that I'm helping through school.

CONAN: Mm hmm. Wade Horn, Carol is hardly alone.

Mr. HORN: No, and I do think there are people who are trapped in that sort of too rich for welfare but not rich enough to actually, you know, get by. And we need to do more to help people like her who are playing by the rules, who want to do the best for herself and for her family.

Now in terms of the specific food stamp rules - I don't run the food stamp program, and most states have wide latitude to decide what kinds of eligibility criteria that they use. But certainly, it seems to me that one of the things we need to do is focus on people like her and those who are engaged in employment and see what we can do to help sustain their employment and help them advance in their careers.

CONAN: Carol, though, it must be awfully frustrating.

CAROL: Yes. It's very frustrating because, you know, my child is 5 years old, and instead of me having to pay for her to go to daycare - which daycare here is extremely lower than it is up north - I'm having to resort to sending her to the Boys' and Girls' Club, which is a lot cheaper, but there's more kids there. And she's a small girl.

So sending her to daycare, I have to pay this full amount out of pocket. And that's - you know, that's not - plus pay rent, plus pay car note, plus pay car insurance, light, gas, water. I mean, all these things, but it's not helping. The welfare reform is not helping a person like me. It may have helped someone else.

Mr. HORN: And Carol, I would say that your child has one thing going for him, and that is a very loving and caring parent. And I really wish you and your children well.

CAROL: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: Good luck, Carol.

CAROL: Uh-huh.

CONAN: Wade Horn, thanks very much for being with us. We appreciate it.

Mr. HORN: My pleasure.

CONAN: Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families in the United States Department of Health and Human Services, and he joined us from that conference at the Heritage Foundation to look at 10 years after welfare reform. When we come back, Gunter Grass and the Waffen SS.

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