Ending dependency? Welfare
reform in the United States
Few changes in social policy have been as radical or contentious as those made to the US welfare system in the 1990s. At the heart of these changes was the abolition of 'the right to welfare'. It was explained in the Introduction that in the USA welfare is synonymous with means-tested assistance paid primarily to lone mothers and their children. It may be recalled that this assistance is paid in the form of food stamps and cash benefits, and that for many years the most important programme of cash assistance was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). It had always been left to individual states to decide how much they were prepared to pay in AFDC, but all were required by law to pay something to people whose income and resources fell below the limits defined by the federal government. That obligation was lifted by the cumbersomely titled Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), which abolished AFDC and replaced it with a radically different programme called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The relevant part of the Act began with a declaration that it should not 'be interpreted to entitle any individual or family to assistance under any state program funded under this part' (Weaver 2000: 456).
The ending of entitlement was a means to an end. The preamble to the Act set out two central objectives of welfare reform. The first of these was to 'end the dependency of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage'. The second objective was to 'prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies' and to 'encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families' (Duerr Berrick 1998: 5).
The first objective was to be met primarily through the introduction of time limits. States were now debarred from using TANF funds to pay benefits to a family that included an adult who had already claimed welfare for a total of five years during his or her lifetime. They were also to ensure that