Ten years ago, President Bill Clinton was faced with a difficult decision. For the third time, Congress, dominated by the Republican Party, had sent him a welfare reform bill to approve. He had vetoed the previous two.
The Democrats - his own party - were overwhelmingly against this reform. Left-wing commentators warned that the poor would become destitute. But Clinton, for all his faults, knew a lot about the welfare system and the damage it was doing to America. After some indecision, he signed the bill. It was probably the best act of his presidency.
A decade later, the terrific success of America's welfare reform is there for all to see. The number of people receiving welfare benefits has fallen by 60 per cent. That is a staggering figure - a major change in the nature of the lives of millions of people. There has been a 70 per cent rise in the employment of single mothers. Welfare grants from the central government to the states have been cut by 30 per cent in real terms.
As for the poor, far from becoming penniless, as some said they would, their condition has considerably improved. The rate of officially-defined poverty among blacks has fallen from 31% to 24%. Among Hispanics, it has has fallen from 31% to 23%. The toughening up of welfare has made poor people better off. It is a paradox which many on the Left struggle to understand or accept. But it is not hard to explain: work is the best route out of poverty.
The benefits of the major changes have reverberated through the country. Since the amount of benefits paid by government have been reduced, taxes are lower than they would otherwise have been. As a result of lower taxes and more employment, economic growth has been faster.
Most Americans recognise the success of the reforms and are glad of them. Last week I was riding in America. A retired man who had administered food stamps - one of the major welfare benefits - remarked that the rules had been tightened up considerably and it was better. He used to do home visits to people on welfare and had seen how those who claimed they were not working often had a job on the side. Men who supposedly were not part of a single mother's household turned up when the welfare cheque arrived. There was a ripple of agreement.
Why can't we have the same sort of reform here? Why can't we have a similar transformation? The answer is that we could.
True, at present it seems impossible that a politician of any political party could manage it. Tony Blair talked a lot about welfare reform on coming to office, but funked it. Gordon Brown was effectively in charge of welfare but did not understand it. He bodged the entire thing, creating tax credits and numerous employment plans which have added greatly to the bureaucracy and left the underlying problems little changed. The discouragement to saving is actually worse. And we still have, by the government's own admission, over a million people on incapacity benefit who could be working.
Meanwhile the new Tory leadership, in awe of the way Tony Blair achieved power by being a centrist, has adopted a similar stance. It does not appear to have the guts to reform welfare.
Yet in the 1970s, it seemed equally impossible that overwheening trade union power would ever been contained. No one predicted the events which then took place. As with the trade unions, a powerful force is pushing for reform: the problem itself is causing major damage to our country. More than that, an increasing proportion of the population is aware of the fact.
We all know that there are millions of people 'working the system'. We know that single parenting is unpleasant for the mother, fails to socialise the father and often damages the children. It contributes, in the long term, to crime. We all know that incapacity benefit is often a cover for unemployment. We know, too, that lives spent in dependency are miserable. As Lord Beveridge, the man who wrote the report that led to the modern welfare state, said, "Complete idleness even on an income demoralises".
Eventually welfare reform will have to take place. The only question is when and how. The way things are going, welfare reform is happening so slowly that our society will continue to deteriorate. Crime will continue to rise. Our economy will lag further behind that of America and the rising countries of the Far East. More people will be so poor they are means-tested in their old age.
But if we took radical steps, like the Americans, we could change our nation's future. True, It would take political bravery and skill. Some of the measures would be angrily criticised as harsh. In America, for example, a single parent on benefits is required to seek work once her child is three months old. In Britain, she can continue on benefits until the child is 16.
In America, the bill that Clinton signed introduced a requirement that no one should live on welfare benefits for more than five years. That would be strong medicine by British standards.
But anyone who cares about this country must support radical reform such as America has had. Welfare is probably more influential on the nature of Britain than the church or the media. We must get our poor off benefits and into work. In doing so, we can make the poor richer. We could then reduce taxes. And in all this we would be doing major work to arrest the decline of civility and decency that has been the bane of our country in recent decades.
We need to fight for welfare reform not in order to be mean or hard but to give people back their dignity and to make Britain a better society.
(The above is the unedited draft for an article which appears in today's Daily Express.)
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