The President took office on a promise to make work pay — to transform our system of welfare into a system of work and responsibility.
This month marks the third anniversary of the signing of the 1996 welfare reform law. Record numbers of people are leaving welfare for work, and new data show that every state has met the law's work requirements. Welfare caseloads are at their lowest levels since 1967, and there are half as many people on welfare as there were when my husband took office — a decline of 6.8 million. In addition, those still on the welfare rolls in 1998 were almost four times more likely to be working than they were in 1992.
Since its launch in 1997, 12,000 businesses have joined The Welfare-to-Work Partnership. These companies have hired an estimated 410,000 people from the welfare rolls, and employers are finding that former welfare recipients are a good investment — they work hard and stay in their jobs as long or longer than other employees.
It's important to recognize, though, that simply passing a law requiring welfare recipients to find work would have failed to fulfill the President's promise. Too many of those on welfare had known nothing but dependency all their lives, and many would have found it difficult to make the transition to work on their own.
No responsible American who works 40 hours a week and has children in the home should be living in poverty. But too many who have minimum-wage or other low-paying jobs are. That is why it was important, when the welfare reform law was passed, to make sure there would be continued Medicaid coverage and nutrition assistance, along with other supports for working families, including child care and an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit.
Here's a story with an important lesson about leaving welfare: Shari could be a single mother living anywhere in the country. She was on welfare when her daughters were born, but for the past year, she has worked as a technician in a veterinarian's office, making $6.50 an hour. Shari loves her job, but although she still gets some help with child care, she sometimes finds it hard to make ends meet.
Based on her income, Shari is eligible for about $150 a month in food stamps. But there's a catch: She has a car. It's not a fancy car, but she needs it get her girls to school and get to work. The problem is that the value of her car exceeds the food stamp asset limit of $4,650, so she has lost her eligibility for food stamp assistance.
Shari, like too many other working parents, is being forced to choose between feeding her family and owning a reliable car.
Although families of three who earn up to $8.50 an hour are eligible for food stamps, fewer than half actually apply and receive the benefits. It appears that many people who move from welfare to work don't realize that they're still eligible for assistance. And of course, rules like the one that required Shari to choose between her car and her benefits worked to reduce the number of families getting food stamps as well.
That is why, last month, the President made it easier for working families to own a car and still be eligible for food stamps. In addition, he simplified the reporting rules that get in the way of serving working families, and launched a nationwide public-education campaign and a toll-free hot line to help working families find out if they're eligible for food stamps.
In this country, we must let hard-working Americans know that there is no indignity in accepting help for which they are eligible, whether in the form of food stamps, a tax credit for working families, or health care for themselves or their children. And all of us — federal, state, and local government, as well as the private sector — must do everything in our power to remove any barriers that stand in the way of working families getting access to these important supports. In addition, we must further strengthen our commitment to child care, make continued investments in Welfare-to-Work programs to help long-term welfare recipients and low-income fathers get jobs and support their families, increase our commitment to transportation and housing for low-income working families, and work to raise the minimum wage.
For the past six and a half years, the President has pursued a new approach to help lift people out of poverty — to make work pay. Now is the time to finish the job and reward responsible hard-working Americans like Shari.
If you'd like to find out more about the food stamp program, you can call 1-800-221-5689, or visit this web site: www.fns.usda.gov/fns/
To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.