Few things in life are more rewarding than getting that first job—the sense of independence, self-worth, and accomplishment is wonderful. In many ways, that job is the first step toward a successful career and a fulfilling life. It’s at the heart of the American dream.

For too long, however, and for far too many Americans, this dream wasn’t a reality. In fact, for most of the last half-century, millions of families were trapped in a welfare program that had failed both them and the taxpayers.

In 1996, Congress passed historic welfare reform legislation that fundamentally overhauled this failed system, placing work at the centerpiece of the initiative. The results have been astounding—welfare rolls have been cut in half, freeing millions of Americans from the cyclical trap of dependence across generations. Many claimed these measures would drive poor families into the streets and harm the children. The concrete facts show otherwise; changes to the system have strengthened our families, revitalized our workforce, and promoted the American dream.

In less than six years, welfare caseloads have fallen from 14 million to just 5 million. Welfare reform has helped 9 million Americans become self-reliant and independent of the system. More than 3 million children have been lifted out of poverty, and employment of mothers most likely to go on welfare has increased substantially. African-American child poverty rates have hit a record low, while the poverty rate among Hispanics has seen its largest decrease in history.

Yet with all of these accomplishments, there’s still more we can do. The House passed a plan backed by President Bush, that we believe will build on the successes of welfare reform. By increasing the minimum work requirements from 30 to 40 hours a week, a typical work week, more recipients will find stable, full-time jobs. This is critical because as many as 58 percent of welfare recipients aren’t participating in work activities.

Of course, we must complement increased work requirements with continued support. Ensuring parents can tap into reliable child care will give them the peace of mind that comes with knowing their child is safely cared for as they train for, find, and keep a job. We also want to be sure individuals have the opportunity to train and educate themselves to further their career. Programs like work-related training and substance abuse treatment will promote healthier lifestyles and a strong work ethic, while still satisfying the new requirements.

Because a stable home life is so important in setting the stage for a child’s future, we will also work to encourage healthy, stable marriages and two-parent households. Studies have shown stable marriages result in children performing better in school and being treated better at home. These initiatives will provide counseling and pre-marital education, as well as research into approaches that work to keep a marriage—and a family—together.

American families don’t want a hand out, and they don’t want a system that only offers a dead end of poverty and dependence. They want a helping hand when it’s needed. But, more importantly, they want the chance to rebuild their lives so they can provide a brighter future for themselves and their loved ones. I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to continue making improvements to the welfare system. IBI