Radio Address to the Nation on Welfare Reform

February 7, 1987

My fellow Americans:

This week I wrote to the Nation's Governors asking them to come to the White House to discuss welfare reform when they visit Washington later this month. On Monday I'll be speaking to a group of concerned citizens about our welfare reform ideas. And later in the coming week, I'll be releasing the Domestic Policy Council's report, a study and series of proposals entitled ``Up From Dependency.'' All these initiatives are based upon my conviction that welfare reform is not just important but vital -- vital to our economic well-being; vital, indeed, to our self-respect as a nation. Permit me to take a few moments this afternoon to share with you why I believe this is so.

The sad truth is that our welfare system represents one long and sorry tale of disappointment. From the 1950's on, poverty in America was on the decline as economic growth led millions up toward prosperity. Then, as the Federal Government began to spend billions on welfare programs, poverty stopped shrinking and actually began to grow worse. For the first time in our nation's history, millions of Americans became virtual wards of the State, trapped in a cycle of welfare dependency that robs them of dignity and opportunity. With our economic success of the 1980's, the poverty rate has begun to shrink, but the problem of welfare dependency remains. No one doubts that welfare programs were designed with the best of intentions, but neither can anyone doubt that they've failed -- failed to boost people out of dependency.

In the fight against poverty, we now know it's essential to have strong families -- families that teach children the skills and values they will need in the wider world. How many self-made men and women in America owe their success to the strength of character given to them by hard-working, loving parents? Yet when we ask whether our welfare system has encouraged family life, we must answer: far from it. Among the welfare poor today, families as we've always thought of them are often not being formed. Since 1960 the percentage of babies born to unmarried mothers has more than tripled. And too often the mothers themselves are only children -- 15, 16, 17 years old -- who, with the birth of their babies, find all the responsibilities of grownups thrust upon them. As for the fathers, much of the time they're nowhere to be found.

We're also coming to understand that our welfare system weakens community values and self-esteem. As a lack of skills prevents our young people from obtaining the jobs and careers they want, their hope for themselves and their neighbors disappears. To reverse this terrible cycle of despair, we must build on the vitality and strength in our communities. We must work with our young people as they strive to achieve the basic educational and work skills they need for a bright future. To do this, we must make dramatic changes in the old, unworkable government programs. With less than half of the billions now spent on welfare, we could give every poor man, woman, and child enough money to lift them above the poverty line. My friends, I believe we're too great a nation, too generous of heart, too bold in finding solutions, to permit this waste of lives and money to continue.

In seeking solutions, we should return to the basic values that helped build this nation: faith in families, faith in individual dignity and work, and faith in our Federal system of government. During my meetings and speeches this coming week, I'll be setting out our proposal for welfare strategies that tap that faith. Washington may have failed to find solutions to poverty and welfare dependency, but many of our 50 States and hundreds of community leaders are making progress, due in part to the new leeway we've given them in the last 6 years. Now, they're ready with many more promising antipoverty ideas -- if only our complex welfare system will allow them greater freedom to succeed. I will ask Congress to approve a process that gives them that freedom.

We know the solutions to welfare dependency must come from States and communities, and those of us here in Washington must have the courage to let them try. Our welfare system will continue to help those who can't help themselves. We have learned that we must provide the pathways and tools that allow our needy to escape dependency and create a better life. As I've said before, the only true measure of a welfare program's success is how many people it makes independent of welfare.

Until next week, thanks for listening, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 12:06 p.m. from the Oval Office at the White House.