WASHINGTON, D.C. - Labels are important in Washington. They provide context to help you understand someone’s perspective. They make it easier for journalists to get the quotes they want, though even in this highly partisan era some people don’t fit neatly into a box.
Ron Haskins is not easily labeled. He works at the Brookings Institution, one of most prominent think tanks here, alongside other scholars who also take leading roles in various policy debates. Most of them can be described somewhere left of center.
But Haskins was the House staff member as responsible as anyone for upending a key component of the social safety net two decades ago, eliminating the entitlement program for welfare that had stood since the New Deal.
Last week he sat in his office – a place with enough papers and printed material to give lie to this being the digital age – and talked about misperceptions.
“Just recently I was invited to be on a TV show -- as the liberal,” he says, emphasizing the last word. “And it was based on nothing more than the fact I was at Brookings. They just assumed. And I said no, I’ve been a Republican my whole adult life, I served in the Bush administration, I worked for Republicans on the Hill, I still consider myself a conservative. So you’ve got the wrong guy.”
Haskins was the right guy in the right place nearly 20 years ago, as director of the House Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee with jurisdiction over a vast array of social services programs. It was there that Republicans took Bill Clinton’s pledge to “end welfare as we know it” and defined it in a way that went well beyond what he intended during his first presidential campaign.
Out went welfare as an entitlement – in other words, families with children who had little or no income no longer automatically qualified for federal aid. Although Clinton initially vetoed the GOP bill, he eventually signed a version of it into law in 1996.
Haskins was the key staff member who kept the Republican momentum going. With his straight-talking manner and almost military-like bearing (he used to be a noncommissioned officer in the Marines Corps), he drew grudging respect even from Democrats who opposed the effort.
Looking back, Haskins says, “I think Clinton is a near-great president, setting aside his foibles." He got NAFTA passed, the welfare overhaul and balanced the budget, and “all three are conservative issues.”
These days Haskins finds himself on the receiving end of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum.
Republicans (including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) were critical of Haskins when he defended the Obama administration in 2012 against GOP charges it was weakening the work requirements in the welfare law by providing waivers to the states. He says providing waivers to states are an essential part of welfare, and that they allowed experimentation by the states that built the case for the federal overhaul.
“I talked to a number of rational Republicans about this and they didn’t agree with me either,” Haskins says.
“They’re so distrustful of the president that they think he really would try to repeal welfare reform. Well I think the president and most Democrats know work is crucial. And that welfare reform did increase work rates among mothers and they don’t want to go backwards.”
Haskins is also working on a forthcoming book that will reflect positively on the growth of evidence-based social policy initiatives in the Obama administration. He’s already braced for more Republican rebukes.
“We are not going to make progress against poverty as long as so many young people have babies outside of marriage, don’t work and don’t complete their education,” he says, adding that there isn’t enough popular support or available money to end poverty among the young as there was to largely eradicate it among the elderly in the 1960s.
And yet Haskins was cheered with news that birth rates for U.S. teenagers fell by 57 percent between 1991 and 2013.
“It is perhaps the greatest achievement of American social policy,” he says. “Most people think it’s primarily because of better use of birth control, but there are some very complex issues involved and they are not well understood. I think there may be a stronger commitment by young girls not to become pregnant.”
The ranks of Brookings’ conservatives will grow next month, when Stuart Butler comes aboard after 35 years at the Heritage Foundation.
“Brookings attracts people who are basically intellectuals and are driven by data,” says Haskins, whose abiding interest in numbers was demonstrated by editing the Ways and Means Committee’s Green Book, a 1,600-page compendium of the nation’s social programs.
“Now we all have assumptions and political leanings and so forth. And the political leanings of people at Brookings tend to be left of center. But they go with the numbers.”
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