Haskins Links Effort of Individuals to ‘Great Society’

Twelve years have passed since Congress approved the 1996 Welfare Reform Act amid outcries from protestors who predicted the legislation would send millions more children into poverty. In fact, says Ron Haskins, a key player in the reform, the opposite has proved true.

“In large part because of welfare reform and increased work by mothers, poverty in female-headed families fell to its lowest level ever during the late 1990s. So did poverty among black children, over half of whom are in female-headed families,” Haskins says.

A firm promoter of personal responsibility, Haskins, who was the majority staff director on the House Ways and Means Committee at the time, thinks the Welfare Reform Act was effective because it required welfare recipients to work and, therefore, to better themselves.

“The opportunity agenda is as important as the anti-poverty agenda,” he says.

The work requirement made people better off because they had the opportunity to succeed, Haskins says. Even those working in low-wage jobs had greater capital than they would have had with welfare alone, since they qualified for work-based programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps and health insurance, in addition to supports for education and housing.

Haskins admits that the system is not perfect. He says that inflation-adjustable block grants for states are necessary to better protect welfare recipients. However, despite the structural errors, Haskins stresses the importance of effort.

“Excuses are not part of effort,” he says.

On November 5, Haskins will speak at Duke University about “The Return of the Great Society? Fighting Poverty and Promoting Income Mobility” as part of the Sulzberger Distinguished Lecture Series. He will address why it is so difficult to reduce poverty and what roles the various levels of government can play in the effort.

 Haskins’s lecture, sponsored by the Center for Child and Family Policy, will take place Nov. 5 from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in Rhodes Conference Room at the Sanford Institute of Public Policy Building. Admission is free, but registration is required. Register at childandfamilypolicy.duke.edu.

Haskins is a senior fellow in the Economic Studies program at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., where he co-directs the Center on Children and Families. The center studies the long-term impact of investments in children, the economic mobility of working families, the growth of single-parent families, and steps that might be taken to ensure federal and state fiscal responsibility while minimizing cuts in programs for children.

Haskins believes poverty will decline if education, employment and families work hand in hand. Regarding education, Haskins says that beyond improvements for grades K through 12, early childhood education programs must be improved and expanded and more emphasis given to post-secondary education. In keeping with his views on welfare reform, Haskins says government should increase work standards and, along with them, the benefits for working. Lastly, Haskins says the government should help promote stable families. His research found that children from divorced or single-parent families struggle developmentally more than their peers.

Haskins earned a doctorate in developmental psychology from UNC, Chapel Hill. His longstanding interest in children’s development led to his curiosity about the effects of poverty and family structures. He has recently become interested in the role of fathers. For one study, he interviewed men who did not pay child support. He discovered their problems are twofold: challenges from lack of education and employment, and the consequences of poor personal choices. The finding that absent fathers face problems that are both structural and personal is a dichotomy that Haskins is working to understand, which he says will impact all of his work on social policy.