Ever since President Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform act in August 1996, many women have moved off welfare—but not out of poverty. Despite what was until recently a very strong economy, most former recipients, including those who work, are struggling to get by. Getting people into just any job doesn’t make them self-sufficient. Instead, it often locks them into low-wage employment without benefits or advancement. More than thirty-four million Americans—many of whom work—remain in poverty. And yet many liberals and conservatives sing the praises of welfare reform simply because women who were once on welfare no longer are.
In addition to replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 altered many programs designed to assist poor children and families, including child support and child care programs, disability benefits, immigrant eligibility for benefits, and the Food Stamp Program. Many of these changes are coming up for congressional reauthorization in 2002, increasing the need for policymakers, academics, and citizens to press Congress to show us the compassion George W. Bush talked about during the election.
Rather than focus on poverty rates and the support low-income adults and children desperately need, debates about welfare reform typically revolve around a discussion of work: What is the proper relation between public assistance and employment? How much should those in need be required to work? And how long should assistance be available to those seemingly unable or unwilling to stay employed? TANF codifies the twin ideas that public assistance should be limited in nature and that those in need should be required to work, regardless of their particular life circumstances and the vicissitudes of the economy. As a result, the new system is really a work rather than a welfare program, but it is a work program sorely in need of improvement.
The new program fails to deliver on the promise that we as a nation “put work first.” Instead, TANF makes it increasingly difficult for individuals to receive the education they need to find and hold decent jobs, and it fails to help the many working Americans who remain impoverished. Rather than bolstering the life chances of those in need, the system now places the poorest among us in an even more vulnerable position. This will become increasingly obvious as the economy continues to falter and more and more people find themselves laid off, ineligible for unemployment compensation, and unable to find new jobs.
Even before Bill Clinton ended welfare as we knew it, caseloads had begun to fall. The growing economy coupled with Earned Income Tax Credit expansions in the early 1990s greatly increased the number of single mothers in the workforce. By late 1996, TANF policy changes began pu...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $35 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.