On August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which drastically changed the nature of our nation’s welfare system. The law abolished the major federal cash assistance program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and replaced it with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The new system offered cash assistance to low-income families on a far more restricted basis. Benefits were conditioned on stricter work requirements and, for the first time ever, were subject to time limits. Reflecting welfare reform’s fundamental agenda of devolution to enhanced state and local control, the federal contribution now consists of capped block grants to the states. By revoking the former income entitlement, one that dated from the days of the New Deal, the U.S. government embarked on what was intended to be a six-year experiment regarding the funding and administration of welfare. These new arrangements for public assistance for our nation’s poorest families are markedly different from the welfare system that had operated for the previous sixty years.
As of this writing in July 2006, our nation still awaits a thorough review and definitive reauthorization of the 1996 welfare law, which technically expired September 30, 2002. Although the House of Representatives has repeatedly passed versions of updated welfare arrangements as favored by President George W. Bush, the Senate has held up final action on new welfare legislation. Neither the 107th Congress nor the 108th Congress, each featuring narrow Republican majorities, has been able to break the logjam on welfare. The result has been a series of stopgap measures and funding extensions that have retained welfare essentially in its present form since September 2002 and will likely do so until September 2010. In effect, the six-year trial period of welfare reform and the TANF system it established has been more than doubled.
Despite the uncertainties associated with each election cycle, it is possible to make an educated guess about the shape of future welfare arrangements, based mainly on the proposals that have worked their way partially through Congress so far. The president joins most members of Congress in an eagerness to make permanent the major welfare measures in effect since 1996. Only a handful of moderate Republican senators