Work-directed mandates have been the focus of welfare reform for the past 30 years, and they have a potentially critical role to play in the success of new reform efforts. What does the research record tell us about the performance and promise of welfare-to-work programs?
Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was created in 1935 explicitly to help a group of single mothers, primarily widows, stay out of the labor force and take care of their children. The goal was to reduce child poverty, and the public accepted the possibility that these single mothers might be long-term welfare recipients. Much has changed since then: Women have entered the labor market in huge numbers, and most mothers on welfare are now unmarried. Clearly, providing long-term support has become much less popular.
Adding a Participation Requirement
to an Entitlement
The welfare reform debate in this country reflects a dilemma identified as long ago as the 16th century English Poor Laws: Is it possible to assist poor people without, by that very act, giving them incentives for behavior that perpetuates poverty and dependency? In particular, is it possible to support employable people without discouraging work?
This reform dilemma arises because, as a nation, we have two conflicting goals for welfare. Since Americans do not want children to be poor, our first goal is to reduce child poverty. The most direct way to do this is to provide the parents of poor children with money. Second, Americans also think that parents should be working and supporting their children. One way to encourage this is to reduce welfare benefits so that work is the only reliable alternative to starvation.
Children and their parents are a tied sale, however: You cannot help one without helping the other. Thus, it is hard to get tough on parents and yet continue to provide a safety net for their children. When the federal government began providing income assistance to low-income families as part of the Social Security Act of 1935, times were different; for single mothers, the public placed primary emphasis on the first objective. One researcher, Gilbert Steiner of the Brookings Institution, has called AFDC's enactment a national commitment to the idea that a woman's place is in the home.(1) The public thought this was fair because, at that time, fewer middle-class women were working and AFDC supported a popular group -- primarily widows or the wives of disabled workers. People did not care if welfare reduced this group's work effort -- they intended it to -- or remarriage rate. Contrary to popular myth, individual welfare entitlements originally were not meant to be temporary.
With the extraordinary tripling of women in the labor force over the last 40 years, however, the public no longer thinks it fair to support low-income single mothers when other women are working for little money and often not by choice. That welfare mothers are now more likely to have had children outside of marriage adds to their unpopularity.
Beyond these issues of equity, the public is concerned that welfare creates perverse incentives, and it fears that a welfare system that provides income mainly to single mothers promotes out-of-wedlock births. Although the research record is not clear on how much welfare has promoted single, unwed motherhood, the concern persists.
These developments have undermined support for the original idea that welfare should provide an alternative to paid work so that single mothers could stay home and care for their children. Instead, a new basic compromise was forged that included a mandatory welfare-to-work strategy and the notion that welfare should be temporary and transitional. Under this approach, Congress has maintained the basic AFDC safety net but added work-related mandates to mitigate the unintended consequences that might result from providing assistance. …