Magazine article The American Prospect

The War on the Poor: The Welfare Reform of the 1990s Left Millions of Americans near Destitution

Magazine article The American Prospect

The War on the Poor: The Welfare Reform of the 1990s Left Millions of Americans near Destitution

Article excerpt



Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


We should know by now that Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF--the so-called "welfare reform" enacted in 1996--is a failure. For every 100 families in poverty in 1996, 68 received cash assistance. Now it's only 23 in 100. Less than 1 percent of our population--just 3.1 million people--receives TANF now. Cash assistance has all but disappeared nearly everywhere. Because states have complete discretion over who will get help, two relatively generous states--California and New York--account for close to half of the nation's welfare rolls. The other 1.7 million recipients are divided among the remaining 48 states and the District of Columbia. No wonder 7.5 million people have no income other than food stamps (now known by the acronym SNAP) at any given time. TANF is a success only by one indicator: It drastically cut government aid to the very poor.

Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the old welfare program that Congress "reformed" in 1996, was a direct federal entitlement program. The money flowed through to needy, eligible recipients. Conservative state governments could not obstruct it (although, as now, they could set benefit levels). TANF, by contrast, is a block grant with fairly broad authority, so states are free to divert income-support money to other uses loosely connected to children and families, like financing child-welfare protection agencies. In other words, they can use the TANF block grant for what amounts to general budget relief.

To make matters worse, federal funding for TANF has been stagnant since the law was enacted, and is now worth 30 percent less than it was in 1996. By design, TANF made it easy for states to intentionally push people away from the program. One permitted technique is the increased use of sanctions, which kick recipients off the rolls for minor infractions. Another is the use of time limits, which the states can set at levels even stricter than the federal five-year limit. States may simply narrow eligibility for assistance and therefore keep people from ever getting into the program. TANF gives the state every right to do this unless it is caught violating the equal protection provision of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. If the workers at the TANF office didn't just declare the would-be applicants ineligible for one reason or another, they could ask privacy-violating and obnoxious personal questions that discourage people from even trying to get help.

Other than low-income people themselves, few people in Washington or anyplace else know and understand the meaning of these facts. Too many continue to proclaim that TANF is a roaring success because it has cut cost and presumably forced people into the low-wage labor market (where there are not enough jobs). In reality, we have ripped a huge hole in our national safety net.

KATHRYN EDIN AND H. Luke Shaefer have written a powerful book that breaks the silence. It is as worthy a successor to Michael Harrington's The Other America as any I know. Edin and Shaefer do two things seldom joined together in a single book: Edin brings to the project her skills as one of our great ethnographic scholars, and Shaefer brings his exceptional understanding of the numbers about poverty and deep poverty in a number of data sets.

The statistics, as striking as are the ones I mention above, don't do the job by themselves. Edin and Shaefer use human stories to produce a whole that is far more powerful than its parts taken separately. Shaefer adduces the shocking fact that 1.5 million households with 3 million children have cash incomes of less than two dollars a day--the number we usually use to measure third- and fourth-world poverty. Edin (with Shaefer) presents a deeply moving human face that brings the stunning numbers to life. …

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