President Bill Clinton wasn’t all bad–and I’m not referring to his Oval Office performance with Monica Lewinsky. Ten years ago come Aug. 22, he signed welfare reform into law–over the screaming objections of his liberal base, which direly predicted that 1 million children would be plunged into poverty. Under the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children regime, a lifetime of government dependency was a woman’s–and even a teen-age girl’s–reward for having a baby out of wedlock. Under the program that replaced it in 1996, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the dependency is strictly short-term, with payments conditioned on looking for and finding work.

The liberals are still screaming about how unfair it all is, but as econ-columnist Robert Samuelson points out, welfare reform has actually been a huge success:

One little-known fact is that we have made gains against poverty in recent decades — and welfare reform deserves some credit. The poverty rate among blacks has fallen sharply, though it’s still discouragingly high. From 1968 to 1994, it barely budged, averaging 32.4 percent. By 2000 it was 22.5 percent. (The poverty rate is the share of people living below the government’s poverty line, about $19,500 for a family of four in 2004.) Similarly, there have been big drops in child poverty. From 1989 to 2004, the number of children in poverty fell 12 percent for non-Hispanic whites and 14 percent for blacks….

Welfare caseloads have plunged. From August 1996 to June 2005, the number of people on welfare dropped from 12.2 million to 4.5 million. About 60 percent of mothers who left welfare found work. Their incomes generally rose. Many qualified for the federal earned-income tax credit, which subsidizes low-income workers. Finally, there were intangible benefits: work connections, self-respect.

As Samuelson points out, there’s a lesson to be learned from welfare reform about fixing other broken parts of a vast government entitlement system that we simply can no longer afford:

One is the need to overcome a bias against change. We underestimate people’s ability to adapt. In 1995 one think tank forecast that the welfare bill would throw 1 million more children into poverty. If Congress had listened, little would have happened. Today we could gradually raise Social Security and Medicare eligibility ages without causing a social catastrophe. Another lesson is the virtue of candor. Welfare’s flaws were openly acknowledged. If we aren’t more honest about other problems, they will simply get worse (as they already have).