The Past and Future of Welfare Reform

By Besharov, Douglas J. | The Public Interest, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Past and Future of Welfare Reform


Besharov, Douglas J., The Public Interest


WITH the passage of the welfare reform law of 1996, 60 years of federal welfare policy was abruptly reversed. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) ended the legal entitlement to benefits, mandated that a large percentage of recipients work, and imposed a five-year time limit on the receipt of federally funded benefits. Since then, welfare caseloads have fallen sharply, and the percentage of single mothers working has risen dramatically. And despite the concerns of many--on the left and the right--there has not been a substantial increase in material hardship. In fact, for most single mothers, incomes have risen.

With this track record, one would think that TANF's reauthorization, due by September 2002, would have been uncontroversial. But it did not work out that way. Faced with fierce partisan disagreements, Congress adjourned without reauthorizing the law. Instead, it passed a short-term extension, so that the reauthorization battle will continue at least into 2003.

The stalemate in Congress was triggered by sharp differences over whether to expand work requirements or to increase aid to low-income families not on welfare in the form of child care and other benefits. These two issues have been the main poles of the welfare reform debate for decades and promise to be the continuing source of contention even after TANF is eventually reauthorized. Before turning to these matters, however, let us begin by assessing welfare reform's achievements and failures over the last several years.

A short history

The Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC) was created in 1935, as part of the Social Security Act of that year. AFDC was aimed at families where the father was unavailable to provide support due to his death, disappearance, or disability. For over half a century, it seemed that caseloads could only grow. Through the 1960s and early 1970s, the focus of progressive social policy was to expand eligibility and to ensure that eligible families received benefits. Between 1960 and 1977, the size of the program more than quadrupled, from about 800,000 families to over 3.5 million families (see figure 1 on next page).

Even those opposed to expanding welfare coverage should appreciate that much of the increase came with the demise of Jim Crow laws and practices that wrongly denied government benefits to African-American and, to a lesser extent, Mexican-American families. In the summer of 1968, as a civil-rights worker in Mississippi, I saw black families given bus tickets to the North instead of welfare assistance, and black children denied admission to public hospitals though they were suffering from malnutrition and other serious illnesses.

In any event, by 1994, welfare caseloads had reached a historic high of 5.1 million families, representing about 15 percent of American families with children. But that year caseloads began a seven-year decline that eventually reduced the national rolls by about 60 percent. Caseloads dropped almost everywhere--in suburbs, rural areas, and even most inner cities--with substantial declines for whites, blacks, and Hispanics alike. The number of white families on welfare showed the steepest decline, falling by 63 percent, while the number of black families on welfare fell by 52 percent, and the number of Hispanic families by 44 percent, with immigration presumably countering what would have been a larger decline. No one predicted a decline of this size and scope, not even the strongest proponents of the original TANF legislation.

Around July of 2001, caseloads stopped declining in most states and started rising again, most likely because of the weakening economy. But although about 10 states experienced caseload increases of 10 to 20 percent, as of June 2002, the nationwide rise has been surprisingly modest.

Was it welfare reform?

Why the astounding decline in welfare caseloads? …

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