• Freedom
  • Innovation
  • Growth

Republicans: Don't Go Squishy on Welfare Reform

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly going squishy on entitlement reform. Maybe he thinks Republicans will lose votes—and seats—in what some believe could be a tough November election. 

The term “entitlement reform” can refer to means-tested welfare programs, including Medicaid. But it can also refer to Social Security and Medicare for seniors, which are not means-tested welfare. 

There should be no hesitation when it comes to welfare reform. Like tax reform, welfare reform is something Republicans know how to do. 

Exhibit One: the 1996 welfare reform legislation, known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). 

Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, a Republican, initiated the welfare-reform success story in the late 1980s and 1990s. 

As Thompson explained in a 1997 presentation at the Heritage Foundation, the Badger State created a “Work, Not Welfare” pilot program in two counties, which “required participants to find a job within 24 months or lose their welfare benefits.”   

“It was,” Thompson asserts, “the first program that absolutely required welfare recipients to find work—the first program that put into practice the philosophy that welfare was a temporary program, not a way of life.” 

Wisconsin’s welfare reform included several other components; for example, helping people find jobs or job training. And the effort evolved and expanded over time as the state learned what did and didn’t work. 

Liberals were horrified that anyone would even think of requiring a welfare recipient to do something in order to receive their benefits.  

And that attitude hasn’t changed in 30 years. Just look at the outrage coming from the left—and megaphoned by the media—at the prospect of allowing states to impose a work requirement for receiving Medicaid benefits.  

Thompson’s welfare reform efforts became so successful that numerous other governors followed suit. 

And in 1996 the Republican-led Congress passed its own version of “workfare,” tying temporary cash benefits to a work requirement for most beneficiaries. As the chart from House Speaker Paul Ryan’s welfare reform paper shows, the 1996 law was immensely successful.



Now it’s time to build on the 1996 legislation’s success, which state and federal bureaucrats, and especially the Obama administration, increasingly watered down. 

A work requirement—whether it’s a real job, job training, or some other kind of task—should be applied to most of the numerous means-tested welfare programs

To be sure, some people with disabilities will be exempted, and there may be a few other temporary exemptions. 

But workfare done right won’t cost Republicans votes, it will win votes—including from those who regained hope and dignity from finally having a job again.