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“No longer can we measure compassion by how much we spend on poverty but how many people we help to lift out of poverty,” says Senator Jeff Sessions (R–AL).

Since the War on Poverty began back in the 1960s, the federal government has spent nearly $20 trillion (adjusting for inflation) on assistance for the poor. Welfare costs have increased 16-fold since the 1960s, but the poverty rate has hardly changed.

In a Senate committee hearing this week, Gary Alexander, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Public Welfare, testified that America’s ever-expanding welfare system all too often “entraps parents and children in dependency while not improving their overall well-being or their chances of joining the middle class.”

“Is the approach we are taking to relieve poverty by what we call the safety net actually helping or is it injuring with the helping hand?” asked Robert Woodson, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, an organization whose aim is “to help residents of low-income neighborhoods address the problems of their communities.”

He told the story of his niece, who for years had been trapped in the welfare system. Despite Woodson’s efforts and thousands of dollars spent trying to help her, “she couldn’t bring herself to make the move and leave the situation she had,” he explained. “My effort to help her help herself couldn’t compete with the welfare system. In the system, she knew she had a place to live…and she had food and daycare benefits.”

Then there was the 1996 welfare reform, which inserted work requirements into the largest cash-assistance welfare program.

“It wasn’t until welfare reform became a reality that [my niece] changed,” said Woodson. “It compelled her to go out and get a job. She had been on welfare for years and the only thing that interrupted the cycle was welfare reform.”

While the reform was a great success—with welfare rolls declining by half and child poverty plummeting—the reform affected only one of what are currently over 80 federal welfare programs. Tragically, the 1996 reform has been watered down since then, with the Obama Administration attempting to deliver its death blow last summer by sidestepping the law to entirely gut the work requirement.

“It is time to return to the moral principles of the 1996 welfare reform,” said Sessions. “That reform was guided by the principle that, over time, unmonitored welfare programs were damaging not merely to the Treasury but to the recipient.”

Helping the poor means helping those in need escape poverty. It means assisting those who are capable of work to find work, and it means encouraging behaviors that will lead to a life of independence.

“We have a great American tradition of helping those in need, but we also have a great American tradition of self-reliance and independence,” stated Sessions. “Federal policy should encourage both of those.”