Happy birthday, welfare reform

Happy birthday, welfare reform

I suppose quite a few parents take a look at their zit-covered, moody teenager and think back to the cuddly, chubby baby they used to be. Seemed like a good idea at the time, they say with a sigh.

The same could be said of welfare reform, which has its 15-year birthday this week. Back in 1996, when unemployment was nearly half of what it is now, pushing families off government assistance to get jobs in the marketplace seemed like a great idea. “Welfare-to-work” was supposed to solve the crisis of families continually stuck in poverty. At the time, nearly anyone who wanted a job could get one, so why not push families toward what would be better in the long run?

Now our economy is moody and covered in red pustules. Jobs for anyone who wants one? If only. Try telling that to the 13.9 million unemployed Americans.

And while the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression made many families turn to programs like food stamps for help, welfare rolls barely budged. While food stamps used to go to 28 million Americans in 2008, they now go to nearly 45 million Americans. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families–the new name welfare got on its first birthday 15 years ago–by contrast, serves 4.5 million families.

What changed during welfare reform? If you were in junior high during the Clinton administration, like I was, you might not remember:

– Block grant: Instead of Uncle Sam chipping in more as welfare caseloads grew, the federal government now gives a set amount to the states: $16.6 billion. Since that number was set in 1996, the actual value of the block grant has gone down 28 percent.

– Power to States: Because of the block grant, states were given wide discretion in how they administered their own welfare programs.

– A few federal rules, mainly about work: The federal government did set some basic guidelines, however. For example, at least half the families on TANF must be “engaged in work-related activities” for at least 30 hours a week, 20 hours for a single parent. That means going to a job, job training, school, etc. Also, legal immigrants aren’t eligible for welfare until they’ve lived in the U.S. for five years

– Cut down your rolls: The feds gave states incentives to get the number of families on welfare down. In addition, they limited the total number of months a family could be on welfare to 60, whether that’s consecutive or on-and-off.

In the years after welfare reform took place, the picture looked rosy. Welfare caseloads around the nation declined significantly.

It wasn’t all due to the reforms, though. A strong economy meant that finding a job was easier and wages were higher, especially with the Earned Income Tax Credit that many low-wage families received.

The point of welfare reform seemed to be to make less poor people by getting them off the dole and into the job market. Trouble is, today, there’s not fewer poor people. There’s just fewer poor people on welfare.

In the ’80s and ’90s, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, welfare covered about 80 percent of very poor families. In 2005, about 40 percent of very poor families used TANF.

“In fact, in the mid-1990s, the former AFDC program lifted 64 percent of otherwise deeply poor children—children with incomes below half the poverty line—out of deep poverty,” writes the center’s researcher Liz Schott. “In 2005, by contrast, the TANF program lifted just 23 percent of deeply poor children above 50 percent of the poverty line.”

And in the Great Recession, welfare rolls in Illinois increased only between 10 perecent to 20 percent. Only nine out of 100 families in poverty in Illinois are receiving TANF benefits, says my colleague, Micah Maidenberg.

Well, I suppose on a birthday, it’s common to look back over one’s life and see what’s been accomplished. Looking back over welfare reform, it’s hard to understand if the goal was just less people on welfare, or less people needing welfare.

We’ve met the first goal, but the second is still a long way off.

© Community Renewal Society 2011

Photo credit: Peter Lindberg

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