Devolution and Welfare: The Social and Legal Implications of State Inequalities for Welfare Reform in the United States

By Whitaker, Ingrid Phillips; Time, Victoria | Social Justice, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Devolution and Welfare: The Social and Legal Implications of State Inequalities for Welfare Reform in the United States


Whitaker, Ingrid Phillips, Time, Victoria, Social Justice


OVER THE PAST FOUR DECADES, THE POLITICAL IDEOLOGY OF FEDERALISM HAS become increasingly popular in the United States (Cashin, 1999). Federalism promotes shifting responsibility for certain social policies and programs from the federal government to the states. According to proponents of federalism, giving states the authority to make decisions concerning programs promotes the creation of better programs since states are not constrained by federal guidelines that may inhibit innovation (Ibid.). The decentralization, or devolution, of decision-making that accompanies federalism is promoted as a means by which states can better identify and meet the needs of their populations. Proponents of devolution argue that the type and magnitude of problems vary by state, and that the federal government is too far removed from the unique problems of states to realistically institute policies and make decisions about state problems. Consequently, states need the flexibility afforded by devolution to redress their own probl ems. Federalism played a key role in welfare reform ideology during the 1990s. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (referred to as PRWORA below) reformed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) using federalist ideology.

This article presents an analysis of PRWORA. Since the act is premised on federalist ideology, it is important to consider characteristics of states that influence how welfare policy decisions are made. After examining the federalist characteristics of PRWORA, we analyze the social and legal implications for welfare reform of inequalities between states.

Federalist Ideology and Policies of Welfare Reform

With the passage of PRWORA in 1996, welfare as we knew it ended in the United States. The act abolished AFDC, one of the oldest federal public assistance programs that specifically targeted poor families with children, and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF was sculpted using federalist ideology, as evidenced by the arguments used in congressional hearings by its supporters and the policies implemented after its passage. Many of these policies gave states the authority to tailor TANF programs and service delivery structures to reflect state goals, philosophies, and needs.

Federalist Rhetoric of Welfare Reform: The federalist intentions of PRWORA were inherent in statements made during a congressional conference on PRWORA. For example, Senators Morella and Hatch and Representative Solomon made favorable statements about returning responsibility for the poor to the states. Senator Morella supported "welfare reform that moves recipients from welfare to work and encourages personal responsibility. This legislation does that by allowing states to try new approaches that meet the needs of their recipients" (Congressional Record 142, E1453 daily ed., July 31, 1996). Senator Hatch's statements also supported federalist ideology:

Today we send the states the authority to design their own programs for the needy. We move one step further away from the one size fits all approach that comes from a Federal Bureaucracy far removed from individual state governments and constituencies.... This bill will...allow the states to continue to design comprehensive programs to address their unique constituencies, needs, and resources (Ibid: 59394).

Representative Solomon stated: "The citizens of the states, in whom I have the utmost confidence, will be finally free to use local solutions to help low-income families in their neighborhoods" (Ibid.). Each statement supported the notion that states, and not the federal government, should be responsible for the poor.

Federalist Policies of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act: Changes made to AFDC with the passage of the PRWORA were consistent with such federalist rhetoric. Under AFDC, states had the discretion to set their own standards of need (the income level at which a family became eligible for AFDC) and their own benefit levels. …

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