The New World of Welfare, edited by Rebecca Blank and Ron Haskins, is an intense and thorough examination of all facets of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996. This bipartisan act was the most sweeping welfare reform ever. It was also widely criticized and clouded with controversy. Among the many items stirring debate was the five-year time limit imposed on the benefits, the level of funding devoted to child care, and the requirements meant to reduce out-of-wedlock births.
The New World of Welfare is a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of these and other contentious points of the 1996 bill.
The editors have assembled a varied group of welfare experts to pick apart the act and explain where it has worked, and where it has not. These experts are split evenly between liberal and conservative views, creating a forum that attempts to promote further reflection rather than a particular ideology. Each chapter alternates between a conservative or a liberal viewpoint, and every once in awhile, there will be a rebuttal at the end of the chapter where the opposing side can chime in with their counterpoint.
The scope and depth of this book can make it a daunting to read. At times, the sheer amount of information - facts, figures, charts, and graphs - seem overwhelming. That this information is often times called into question by the opposing side puts that much more of a burden on the reader. This is a book that needs to be read actively, with notes and a highlighter, so that you can return to crucial bits of information.
The book begins with an outline of the 1996 Act. This chapter offers helpful analysis of how the bill has worked for the past six years, as well as providing an overview for the reauthorization debate that has already begun in Congress. From there, a bevy of experts, both academic and non-academic, take turns covering such issues as welfare-to-work programs, Medicaid and food stamps, and child support. Some of the most effective chapters deal with the different welfare-to-work systems put in place by each state. These systems take on new importance with because of the 5-year limit on benefits. With the onus on recipients to find work, states have been struggling to find the best way to move people into the workforce. Minnesota, for example, has higher-than-average earnings disregards, which means that a poor person receiving a pay check will not lose out on needed welfare supplements. Later in the book, there are also several interesting chapters that deal with the most controversial aspect of the 1996 Act: the money provided to reduce out-of-wedlock births. The debate in this section centers around the effectiveness of this provision. Though out-of-wedlock births have decreased, there has been no definite causal relationship between that and the welfare reform bill.
Overall, despite the challenging nature of this book, it is more than worthwhile. It provides no answers, only the impetus to keep thinking.