The Truth-O-Meter Says:
Santorum

As a result of welfare reform, "poverty levels went down to the lowest level ever for ... African-American children."

Rick Santorum on Wednesday, January 4th, 2012 in a New Hampshire town hall with voters

Rick Santorum says welfare reform deserves credit for reductions in African-American child poverty

Fresh off his near-win in Iowa, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum held a town hall meeting in Brentwood, N.H., with voters on Jan. 4, 2011.

He covered many topics, including one of his favorites: welfare reform.

Santorum, who actively pushed for welfare changes as a member of Congress, talked about the effects of the 1996 reform law, telling the audience, "Guess what happened? Poverty levels went down to the lowest level ever for ... one of the areas that had the highest level of poverty historically, which is African-American children."

We looked into the statement and found that Santorum is right that poverty rates declined after the reform’s passage. But opinions differ on the primary cause.

What the reform did

Santorum was first elected to the House in 1991 and helped write the Republicans’ Contract with America, which proposed a major overhaul to the federal welfare system. President Bill Clinton had been elected promising to "end welfare as we know it." The legislative battle over just how to do that spanned several years. In 1996, Santorum had moved on to the Senate, helping win passage of a law that transformed welfare from an entitlement -- guaranteeing cash for needy people -- to a temporary assistance program with dollar caps and time limits on what beneficiaries could receive. It shifted most of the administrative work to the states and required recipients to move toward work and financial independence.

The idea was that people on welfare -- who were still poor because benefits did not exceed the poverty line -- would be motivated to seek job training and full employment and end up being better off financially.

For backup to his claim about the reform’s positive effect on black child poverty, Santorum’s campaign pointed us to a 2006 report by the conservative Heritage Foundation. It argued that poverty rates declined following reform and have stayed low even through fluctuations in the economy.

The report’s author, Robert Rector, testified before the House Ways and Means Committee that "in the quarter century prior to welfare reform, the old welfare system failed to reduce poverty among black children. Since welfare reform, the poverty rate among black children has fallen at an unprecedented rate from 41.5 percent in 1995 to 32.9 percent in 2004."

We found this U.S. Census chart, which presents slightly different figures for poverty among African-Americans under age 18: 41.5 percent in 1995 but 33.4 in 2004. The general trend, however, is the same.

Rector’s report includes a chart showing that even previous periods of economic expansion did not lead to a significant drop in welfare cases.

"How was the economic expansion of the 1990s different from the eight prior expansions?" the report asks. "The answer is welfare reform."

In an interview, Rector said those patterns have held true even through the current recession.

"There was a sort of structural shift downward around the period of welfare reform," he said. "It really has remained at a substantially lower level, although recessions have an effect."

Other perspectives

While Rector maintains that the economy played only a secondary role in reducing poverty, other groups says it’s the main driver. After all, welfare reform became law during the longest period of economic growth in U.S. history.

"While there was a decrease in poverty overall in the economic boom of the late 1990s, it was not a result of welfare reform but due to the strength of the broader economy," said Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "There was an increase in labor market participation by single mothers during these years, but much of that increase was lost when the economy weakened."

And Austin Nichols wrote in a 2006 report for the Urban Institute that improvements in the low-wage job market, especially for less-educated workers, benefited black children more than others because their parents tend to have less education.

"We still have welfare reform, but as the low-wage job market weakened, child poverty shot back up," Nichols said in an e-mail.

The Census put the child poverty rate for African-Americans at 35.3 percent in 2009. Rector said it’s about 38 percent today.

And a 2011 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization that describes its goal as "helping build better futures for disadvantaged children in the United States," said that the last decade has been especially damaging for poor children.

"The official child poverty rate, which is a conservative measure of economic hardship, increased 18 percent between 2000 and 2009, essentially returning to the same level as the early 1990s," the report stated.

Our ruling

Santorum credited welfare reform for driving poverty down to the lowest level ever for African-American children.

He’s right that the poverty rate did reach historic lows following the reform’s passage, but the reason why is not so clear cut. There’s good evidence that the policy changes took more people off the welfare rolls by requiring them to work. And working, it follows, makes people better off than reliance on relatively low levels of public assistance. But the booming economy of the late 1990s had a lot to do with former welfare recipients gaining employment, as there were ample jobs to be had. Experts say the law and the healthy employment picture combined to help lift people out of poverty. And recently, as the economy has weakened and unemployment increased, poverty rates have risen, too. On balance, we rate Santorum’s claim Half True.

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About this statement:

Published: Monday, January 9th, 2012 at 4:39 p.m.

Subjects: Children, Families, Poverty, Welfare

Sources:

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, GOP Presidential Candidate, Holds Town Hall Meeting in Brentwood, N.H., Jan. 4, 2011, transcript accessed via Nexis

Heritage Foundation, "The Impact of Welfare Reform," Robert Rector, July 19, 2006

Interview with Robert Rector, Heritage Foundation, Jan. 6, 2011

Email interview with Liz Schott, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Jan. 6, 2011

Email interview with Austin Nichols, Urban Institute, Jan. 9, 2011

Urban Institute, "Understanding Changes in Child Poverty Over the Past Decade," Austin Nichols, May 2006

U.S. Census, Children Below Poverty Level by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1980 to 2009

PolitiFact, "Rick Santorum ad claims he reformed welfare," Jan. 4, 2012

Written by: Molly Moorhead
Researched by: Molly Moorhead
Edited by: Martha M. Hamilton

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