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Heritage President op-ed: The first step in welfare reform should help American families

July 19, 2018

The Hill

The first step in welfare reform should help American families

By Kay Coles James

July 19, 2018


I am the daughter of a former welfare recipient. So when I listen to some people in Washington talk about welfare reform, I shake my head. They talk about welfare like they know the first thing about it. But it is clear that many simply do not. They were not raised by a welfare recipient. They have never seen what welfare so often does to families and communities.

That is why many in Washington think of welfare programs as a tool for social engineering. They frame the debate as a racial issue, even though most recipients are white. Moreover, they honestly believe welfare can raise up poor families. The people who created our welfare programs 50 years ago meant well. They really did try to solve poverty, and I am grateful to them for caring so much about poor people.

But the tragedy is they got it all wrong. Their liberal policies are no more than the unintended consequences of their misguided compassion. It has deprived millions of children of the love and security they would get from a family with two parents. It has allowed dependence to take the place of work. It has caused the spark to go out for whole generations.

Growing up, I saw firsthand the unintended harm that welfare can cause. I saw the marriages that were destroyed, the children who grew up without both parents, and the hope of generations lost. So I have a simple message for our leaders: If you really want to help welfare families, you must reform welfare. It has long been said that families act as the very first Department of Health and Human Services. But in recent decades, that bedrock in communities across our nation has been broken.

Today, millions of poor kids are not with the two people they need most, which are their moms and dads. They are growing up without ever being part of a whole family. They are missing out on the security and happiness that provides. My great-grandmother was born into slavery and experienced firsthand the heartbreak of families being torn apart. I think of her often, and I wonder what she would think of America today.

Would she understand why so many children are growing up with only one parent? Would she have any tolerance for mothers and fathers who turn their back on their kids and walk away? Would she believe it is “politically incorrect” to say a man and woman should be married if they have a child? Would she have any doubt as to why so many fatherless teens seek in street gangs the sense of belonging they never had at home?

The answers are no, no, no, and no. This is precisely why welfare reform is so important. When I had the privilege of serving as Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources, we took on statewide welfare reform. We learned some important lessons that may be of value to Washington.

First, our paramount focus was to help people. In fact, our reform policy was crafted with current and former welfare recipients who personally knew how destructive welfare is and who pushed us to enact the most impactful family reforms anyone had ever seen. Second, we joined with powerful advocates in all the impacted communities and went across the state to spread the word. Third, we told the true stories of welfare and its impact on Americans. These were stories that were more heartbreaking and compassionate than anything any reform opponent ever offered.

Last, but by no means least, we did not take “no” for an answer. We kept fighting for the families in our state. The result was a package of reforms that had an immediate and positive result. We learned and proved that welfare reform works. It replaces dependency with independence. It enables welfare recipients to become workforce participants. It restores pride, self-respect, and personal responsibility. Most of all, it heals and helps the most vulnerable parents and children among us.

Washington has the opportunity to achieve the same progress today. With an empowerment agenda, policymakers can save lives from failed liberal policies. They can make it possible for millions of Americans to realize their dreams. They can heal and help so many who need it. The time for talk is over. It is time to take the bold action welfare families deserve.