Welfare Reform

views updated May 17 2018


effects on families and children
catherine dunn shiffman

moving mothers from welfare to work
pearl sims
bill tharp


In 1996 the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) brought sweeping changes to the welfare system in the United States. This federal law was designed to move adults quickly and permanently into the workforce, promote family stability, and allocate greater flexibility to states in designing public-assistance programs. Though welfare reform primarily targets the behaviors of adults, children are indirectly affected by the reorganization of family roles and responsibilities, and by the shifts in resources associated with new employment. Research regarding the effects of welfare reform on families and children is preliminary, but nonetheless illuminates areas that warrant further study and has implications for children's ability to succeed in school.

Summary of Welfare Reform

The American welfare system is a diverse array of state programs that emphasize the promotion of family stability, the provision of time-limited cash assistance, and the movement of recipients into full employment. Under PRWORA, several existing federal welfare programs were eliminated, including the entitlement programs Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training (JOBS), and Emergency Assistance (EA). In their place, PRWORA created Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which provides block grants to the states to provide cash assistance to families, and which supports other state programs consistent with the welfare law. PRWORA also made various changes to other government benefits designed for low-income families. The affected programs provided benefits for child care, health care, food stamps, individuals with disabilities, child-support enforcement, and child welfare. In addition, under PRWORA most immigrants are denied welfare-related benefits.

In general, TANF rules move more low-income adults into the workforce by: (1) requiring current recipients to participate in employment or training-related activities; (2) imposing a five-year lifetime limit on cash assistance; (3) terminating benefits if rules are violated; and, (4) reducing the number of families exempt from work requirements. Of particular impact to young children, federal TANF guidelines limit work exemptions to parents with children under one year of age. Eighteen states require a mother to resume work when her child is six months old or less. Welfare caseloads dropped dramatically from a record high of 14.4 million in 1994 to 5.3 million in 2001.

Along with these changes, government support for child care increased substantially to address the needs of low-income parents entering the workforce. PRWORA consolidated federal funding for child care under the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), and federal and state funding under CCDF rose from $2.8 billion in 1995 to $8 billion in 2000. Nonetheless many eligible families are not receiving subsidies.

PRWORA also altered several long-standing federal welfare programs. Significant changes were made to Medicaid, Food Stamps, and Supplemental Security Income. Historically, Medicaid provided health care coverage to families eligible for welfare assistance. PRWORA extended this coverage to children and their parents for up to one year after leaving welfare. For children whose family income exceeded the Medicaid limit, Congress created a special program, the State Children's Health Insurance Plan (SCHIP), to serve their needs. Second, PROWRA made eligibility for Food Stamps more restrictive. Program participation dropped significantly (and out of proportion to these changes in eligibility). Third, PRWORA tightened eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the program that provides financial assistance to low-income individuals who have a disability. By changing the definition of child disability, roughly 100,000 children were no longer eligible for this government benefit.

Economic Picture for Low-Income Children and Families

While national statistics point to an improved economic picture for low-income families, mitigating factors temper an overly optimistic assessment of welfare reform. The employment rate of current and former adult welfare recipients increased by 33 percent between 1996 and 1999; however, this increase coincided with a period of unprecedented economic prosperity. Similarly, while the percentage of children living in poverty dropped to 16.2 percent, the lowest percentage since 1978, many families did not substantially improve their living standard.

Definitive conclusions about the relationship of welfare reform to family and child well-being are problematic for at least three reasons. First, welfare programs vary across states and communities in their programmatic emphases and in the types of support available. Second, these programs target adult behaviors and measure success in terms of economic indicators, rather than employing a more multidimensional assessment of family and child well-being. Third, much of the existing research is based on samples drawn from experimental welfare programs that predate the 1996 law.

Welfare Reform and Changes in Parenting Practices

Research to date has found limited effects of welfare reform on parenting, with the exception of changes in how mothers select nonparental care for their children. Parents in welfare-to-work programs with increased resources tend to place children in higher quality child care and after-school programs. Not surprisingly, as mothers move into full-time employment they tend to use formal child care, such as centers and family-based home care, rather than informal arrangements.

Much remains unknown, however, about the effects of welfare-to-work programs on the less tangible aspects of parenting. The Growing Up in Poverty Project found few changes in parenting practices three years after researchers began following families in PRWORA welfare-to-work programs. Slight declines in child-development activities and an increase in television use were detected among families in welfare-to-work programs, when compared to unemployed households.

Welfare Reform and Child Outcomes

The evidence collected thus far does not point to dramatic changes in children's well-being associated with welfare-to-work programs. Detected impacts tend to be found in terms of a child's behavioral and emotional adjustment, and to a lesser extent in cognitive development. Programmatic emphases, family characteristics, family circumstances, and a child's developmental stage influence the effect of welfare on children.

In general, children tend to fare better when family income improves, irrespective of specific programmatic emphases. Studies that compared job-training programs with work-first programs have not found patterns of difference in child outcomes in three domains: behavioral/emotional adjustment, cognitive development, and health and safety.

Family circumstances and characteristics can influence the relationship between welfare reform and child well-being. Children whose families received welfare for less time tended to fare worse under welfare-to-work requirements than children of long-term recipients in some studies. Maternal depression in combination with welfare-to-work requirements may be associated with declines in academic achievement, and with increased emotional and behavioral problems, among school-age children.

Many researchers and policymakers predicted that young children would be most adversely affected by parental employment. Findings thus far are mixed, however, suggesting that the influence of welfare-to-work on outcomes for young children is likely mediated by other factors, particularly the type and quality of nonparental care. Two studies of welfare-to-work that predate PRWORA found minimal impacts on young children. One of these studies showed that outcomes tended to be favorable in terms of cognitive development and unfavorable in terms of health and safety outcomes. Related findings on behavioral and emotional adjustment were mixed. A third study of families receiving TANF found that low-performing children placed in childcare centers showed greater gains in learning and school readiness than those children in home-based care. Further increases in cognitive development were found among children in higher-quality childcare centers.

There is some evidence that welfare-to-work programs are associated with cognitive, behavioral, and emotional changes among school-age children and among adolescents in particular. Detected effects are small but troubling. Adolescents whose parents are engaged in the welfare-to-work transition may be more likely to exhibit behavioral problemssuch as school suspension or expulsionand declines in school performance such as more frequent use of special educational services and grade repetition. Research suggests that adolescents in families who recently left welfare are more likely to be employedand working longer hoursthan youth of current welfare recipients. Long work hours may be detrimental to academic achievement. The influence of welfare-to-work programs on adolescents may be uneven. For example, youth with younger siblings have exhibited more behavior problems and lower school performance than those without younger brothers and sisters.


Government welfare programs underwent a substantial transformation in the 1990s. The influence of these changes on family and child outcomes is only beginning to be understood. Early evidence suggests that changes in family and child outcomes associated with welfare reform are due to the interaction of programmatic, family, and contextual factors.

See also: Poverty and Education.


Ahluwalia, Surjeet K.; McGroder, Sharon M.; Zaslow, Martha J.; and Hair, Elizabeth C. 2001. Symptoms of Depression Among Welfare Recipients: A Concern for Two Generations. Washington, DC: Child Trends.

Brooks, Jennifer L.; Hair, Elizabeth C.; and Zaslow, Martha J. 2001. Welfare Reform's Impact on Adolescents: Early Warning Signs. Washington, DC: Child Trends.

Brown, Brett. 2001. Teens, Jobs, and Welfare: Implications for Social Policy. Washington, DC: Child Trends.

Chase-Lansdale, P. Lindsay, and Pittman, Laura D. 2002. "Welfare Reform and Parenting: Reasonable Expectations." The Future of Children: Children and Welfare Reform 12 (1):167179.

Child Trends. 2002. The Unfinished Business of Welfare Reform: Improving Prospects for Poor Children and Youth. Washington, DC: Child Trends.

Fuller, Bruce; Kagan, Sharon L.; Caspary, Gretchen L.; and Gauthier, Christiane A. 2002. "Welfare Reform and Child Care Options for Low-Income Families." The Future of Children: Children and Welfare Reform 12 (1):97119.

Gennetian, Lisa A., et al. 2002. How Welfare and Work Policies for Parents Affect Adolescents: A Synthesis of Research. New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.

Greenberg, Mark H.; Levin-Epstein, Jodie; Hutson, Rutledge Q.; Ooms, Theodora J.; Schumacher, Rachel; Turetsky, Vicki; and Engstrom, David M. 2002. "The 1996 Welfare Law: Key Elements and Reauthorization Issues Affecting Children." The Future of Children: Children and Welfare Reform 12 (1):2527.

Growing Up in Poverty Project. 2002. New Lives for Poor Families? Mothers and Young Children Move through Welfare Reform: The Growing Up in Poverty ProjectWave 2 Findings, California, Connecticut, and Florida: Executive Summary. Berkeley, CA: Growing Up in Poverty Project.

Huston, Aletha C. 2002. "Reforms and Child Development." The Future of Children: Children and Welfare Reform 12 (1):5977.

Tout, Kathryn; Scarpa, Juliet; and Zaslow, Martha J. 2002. Children of Current and Former Welfare Recipients: Similarly at Risk. Washington, DC: Child Trends.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2000. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program: Third Annual Report to Congress. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2002. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program: Fourth Annual Report to Congress. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation.

Zaslow, Martha J.; Moore, Kristin A.; Brooks, Jennifer L.; Morris, Pamela A.; Tout, Kathryn; Redd, Zakia A.; and Emig, Carol A. 2002. "Experimental Studies of Welfare Reform and Children." The Future of Children: Children and Welfare Reform 12 (1):7995.

internet resource

Hamilton, Gayle; Freedman, Stephen; and McGroder, Sharon M. 2000. "Do Mandatory Welfare-to-Work Programs Affect the Well-Being of Children? A Synthesis of Child Research Conducted as Part of the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies." New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation. <www.mdrc.org/Reports2000/NEWWS-CS/NEWWS-ChildSyn.htm>.

Catherine Dunn Shiffman


Welfare policy at the start of the twenty-first century is the result of many changes in the nature of assistance to the economically disadvantaged throughout the history of this nation. Before 1900 the federal government played a minimal role in the alleviation of poverty. During this period, assistance to the poor was given through religious organizations and private philanthropic societies in the form of in-kind benefits such as clothes, shelter, and food. This assistance was often predicated on some type of work done in return on the part of the recipient, thus allowing for the recipient to retain a sense of pride and responsibility in "working" for the assistance given. Around the turn of the century, the plight of America's poor was just beginning to catch the attention of commentators such as Jacob Riis (1890) and Jane Addams (1902), who chronicled the conditions of urban housing tenements in New York and Chicago. Still, the government was a relatively small part of the American welfare structure at this time. As indicated by Carl Chelf (1992), in the years prior to the Great Depression, only about 12 percent of the assistance provided in the nation's fifteen largest cities came from public sources. Nevertheless, the idea that the federal government had a role in ameliorating the conditions of poverty was beginning to creep into the American consciousness.

In 1909 the first significant recognition of the problem of poverty by the federal government occurred when President Theodore Roosevelt invited 200 experts to the White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, which was essentially a brainstorming session on how best to devise programmatic solutions to assist widows and impoverished children. Two primary movements arose out of this conferenceone to provide mothers' pensions and one to establish a federal children's bureau. The mothers' pension movement was primarily manifested at the state level, and by 1919 such pensions were available in thirty-nine states. The movement to establish a federal children's bureau culminated in the passage of federal legislation in 1912 that created the U.S. Children's Bureau, which provided federal grants to states that funded maternal and child health services. Federal involvement on this front was further institutionalized with the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921, which supported the implementation of the first direct federal expenditures for child welfare.

The national economic collapse experienced during the Great Depression created the impetus for a much greater federal involvement in social welfare. In the face of unemployment rates of more than 20 percent that negatively affected the ranks of the middle and even the upper class, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Committee on Economic Security. This committee provided the momentum for the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935, which had two primary components: The first was an employment-based social insurance system based upon the contributions of employees and employers and the second provided assistance to economically disadvantaged mothers that was noncontributory in nature. This latter program, known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), would form the foundation of the welfare state well into the 1990s.

In the years after World War II America's urban centers began to deindustralize, as advances in mass-produced housing construction and the development of the national highway system facilitated the movement of industry and population to peripheral suburban areas. This movement was skewed by income and race. Those that moved outward tended to be largely more affluent and Caucasian, while those that remained within the urban core were largely economically disadvantaged minorities that faced declining opportunities for employment near their residences. These changes in the "structure of opportunity" resulted in highly concentrated populations of disadvantaged people within the nation's inner cities. As a result, the number of AFDC recipients increased 17 percent between 1950 and 1960. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, by 1960, more than 22 percent of the nation's population continued to live at incomes below the poverty line.

The persistence of poverty in America was addressed through federal initiatives in the 1960s, including John F. Kennedy's "War on Poverty" and Lyndon B. Johnson's "Great Society." Perhaps the most significant result of these efforts was the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). The OEO operated through a huge network of "neighborhood service centers" that facilitated the allocation of benefits to the community. The effect of the Economic Opportunity Act was profound. Between 1960 and 1970 the number of AFDC recipients increased by 107 percent and the national poverty rate declined to just under 13 percent.

From Welfare to Work: Federal and State Programs

The first federal effort to connect employment to welfare receipt was embodied in the Workforce Incentives Program, which was part of the AFDC law between 1967 and 1989. Under this program, states were required to register through their employment services any AFDC recipients with no preschool children. Of 1.2 million AFDC recipients in 1986, only 130,000 "worked" their way out of welfare, most without the assistance of the program. An attempt at addressing these shortcomings was represented in the Family Support Act of 1988 (FSA), which created the Job Opportunities and Basic Skill (JOBS) Program. The JOBS program required any woman whose youngest child was three or over to participate in activities intended to promote self-sufficiency. Although FSA was a significant improvement over past efforts in that it provided for job training, childcare, and transitional assistance, states had difficulty meeting the 40 percent match requirement for the JOBS program. As a result, states were exempting more than half of the adult caseload in 1992, with some states reaching a 70 to 80 percent exemption rate. Overall, only about 7 percent of the adult caseload participated in the JOBS program in 1992.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 effectively ended the federal direct cash benefit to disadvantaged parents by reverting to funding awarded in the form of block grants to states. This policy gave states wide latitude in expending this funding, although several parameters were established. First, PRWORA placed a sixty-month lifetime limit on the receipt of benefits. States were allowed, however, to allow for a time limit exemption for up to twenty percent of the caseload. Second, PRWORA limited consecutive receipt of benefits to twenty-four months, after which recipients would have to reapply to continue participation in the program. Third, recipients were required to work as soon as they were determined to be "job-ready." Thus, PWORA re-established welfare policy as a means of providing short-term assistance as recipients worked towards employment.

The implementation of this latest permutation of welfare policy was a response to a wave of efforts at welfare reform at the state level, as more than forty states had been granted waivers to impose major changes in their welfare systems between 1993 and 1996. The passage of PRWORA only accelerated this tendency. Within the framework of PRWORA, the imposition of time limits at the state level was an important component of these changes. As of 2000, the enforcement of time limits had resulted in the loss of benefits for approximately 60,000 families nationwide.

The Impact of Welfare Reform

According to statistics published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Economic Policy Institute in 2001, all of these sweeping changes in federal and state welfare policy resulted in a 56 percent reduction in caseload between 1993 and 2000from more than five million families (5.5 percent of the population) to just over two million families (2.1 percent of the population). In fiscal year 1994, only 8 percent of TANF adults were employed while receiving assistance compared to 28 percent in fiscal year 1999.

However, it is important to note that the PRWORA was implemented during the one of the strongest economic cycles in history. Researchers have found that at least 40 percent of the fall in caseloads may be attributable to the growth in the economy, rather than to changes in welfare policies. As unemployment ticked upwards in 2000 and 2001, caseloads again began to rise. Food stamp caseloads jumped by nearly 600,000 from September to October 2001a 3 percent increaseand the majority of states saw increases in welfare caseloads during the latter part of 2001. Welfare caseloads became increasingly concentrated in America's cities. As of 1999, nearly 60 percent of all welfare cases were in 89 large urban counties, and ten urban counties accounted for almost one-third of all U.S. welfare cases.

Analysis of the poverty data regarding those moving from welfare to work indicates that although the poverty rate has declined overall, it has increased among working families, particularly those headed by single mothers. For those families that were already poor, poverty deepened between 1995 and 1999. The poverty rate among people in these families, after government benefits and taxes are taken into account, was 19.4 percent in 1999, nearly the same level as in 1995, when it stood at 19.2 percent. The census data also show that in 1999, the incomes of working single-mother families that were poor fell below the poverty line by an average of $1,505 for each person in these families. The number of working single-mother families that were poor climbed considerably between 1995 and 1999 and was larger in 1999 than at any other time in the 1993 to 1999 period. These data indicate that while welfare reform policies resulted in the employment of more single mothers, an unintended consequence of this public policy has been that working-poor families headed by single mothers have grown poorer.

Work supports were also implemented in the welfare to work reform efforts. The major areas of support focused on childcare, health care, the EITC, food stamps, and housing. The total federal dollars available for childcare nearly doubled from the early 1990s to the start of the twenty-first century and new regulations allowed states to use TANF monies for childcare expenditures. However, in 1999 only 12 percent of eligible families received assistance through the Child Care and Development Fund and Head Start served less than half of eligible children. Furthermore, despite increased federal funding on childcare over the 1990s, wages for childcare workers stagnated, resulting in recruitment and retention problems among child care workers.

As families transition to work, the costs of health care and housing costs become major concerns. Some employers do not offer affordable health benefits to the dependents of the employee. A parent in a family of three earning more than $7,992 (59 percent of the poverty guideline) is not eligible for Medicaid coverage. Former welfare recipients experience levels of health hardships similar to those of welfare families, and higher than those of poor families overall. In addition, the welfare reform legislation did not recognize the large role of housing in the budgets of poor families. A recent report concluded that "families are experiencing high rates of housing hardships: among parents who recently left welfare, 28 percent report being unable to pay housing or utility bills" (Wright, Gould, and Schill, p. 46).

See also: Parenting; Poverty and Education.


Addams, Jane. 1902. "The Housing Problem in Chicago." Annual of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 20:97107.

Administration for Children and Families, and Office of Planning Research and Evaluation. 2000. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program: Third Annual Report to Congress. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Bane, Mary J., and Ellwood, David T. 1994. Welfare Realities: From Rhetoric to Reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bloom, Dan, and Michalopolous, Charles. 2001. How Welfare and Work Policies Affect Employment and Income: A Synthesis of Research. New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation.

Boushey, Heather, and Gundersen, Bethney. 2001. Just Barely Making It: Hardships Experienced after Welfare. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

Boushey, Heather; Gundersen, Bethney; Brocht, Chauna; and Bernstein, Jared. 2001. Hardships in America: The Real Story of Working Families. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

Brauner, Sarah, and Loprest, Pamela. 1999. Where Are They Now? What States' Studies of People Who Left Welfare Tell Us. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Brookings Institution. 1999. The State of Caseloads in America's Cities: 1999. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy.

Chelf, Carl P. 1992. Controversial Issues in Social Welfare Policy. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Katz, Bruce, and Allen, Katherine. 2001. "Cities Matter: Shifting the Focus of Welfare Reform." Brookings Review 19:3033.

Kniesner, Thomas, and Zilak, James. 1998. The Effects of Recent Tax Reform on Labor Supply. Washington, DC: AEI Press.

Loprest, Pamela. 1999. How Families that Left Welfare Are Doing: A National Picture. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Parrott, Sharon. 1998. Welfare Recipients Who Find Jobs: What Do We Know About Employment and Earnings? Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Porter, Kathryn H., and Dupree, Allen. 2001. Poverty Trends for Families Headed by Working Single Mothers: 1993 to 1999. Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Riis, Jacob. 1890. How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. New York. Scribners.

Strawn, Julie; Greenberg, Mark; and Savner, Steve. 2001. Improving Employment Outcomes Under TANF. Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1995. Current Population Reports, P60-194.

Wright, David J.; Gould, Ellen Ingrid; and Schill, Michael H. 2001. Community Development Corporations and Welfare Reform: Linkages, Roles, and Impacts. Albany, NY: Rockefeller Institute Press.

internet resources

Administration for Children and Families. 2001. "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), 19601999." <www.acf.dhhs.gov/news/stats/6097rf.htm>.

Children's Defense Fund. 2000. "Welfare to What? How Are Children and Families Faring After Three Years of the Welfare Law?" <www.childrensdefense.org/fair-startwelfaretowhat_2000.htm>.

Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation. 2001. "Poverty Trends for Families Headed by Working Single Mothers, 1993 to 1999." <www.cbpp.org/8-16-01wel.pdf>.

Sherman, Aloc, et al. 1998. Welfare to What: Early Finding on Family Hardship and Well-Being. Washington, DC: Children's Defense Fund. <www.childrensdefense.org/pdf/wlfwhat.pdf>.

Pearl Sims

Bill Tharp

Welfare Policy (Issue)

views updated May 29 2018


There is no one single date that can be assigned as the beginning of the welfare system in the United States. Instead, both the ideology and the institutions of the welfare state have grown like weeds, cut back occasionally, only to reappear and to establish themselves again. There are, for instance, elements of the welfare ethic in the notion that people have an obligation to look out for one another's welfare going all the way back to the Puritan communities of New England. The "covenant" that each person had with God and with his or her immediate family also extended in some measure to all the inhabitants of the village. This is not to deny that the Puritans expressed the Protestant fixation with individual salvation, and that in this important sense they would make their peace with the competitive individualism of capitalism. But, especially before the rise of a systematic ideology of competitive capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the social solidarity of the medieval village also informed the way that people looked at each other. It prompted the expectation that they could look forward to a certain helpfulness from each other. Even when this village world-view was in decline with the rise of the cities, there were still back-water religious communitiesthe Shakers, the Quakers, the Moravians, the Amish, and the Utopian communitiesand the general frontier neighborliness of cooperative labor exchanges the barn-raisings, corn husking, or quilting parties that represented a much older tradition. This older, cooperative heritage, mediated by the labor movement and by the socialist tradition, contributed an alternative ethic that formed part of the welfare system in modern U.S. history.

The strength of the dominant ideology of competitive capitalism in the United States has meant that welfare policy has had countless critics. In spite of these attacks, in the twentieth century this welfare movement has been sustained by the great reform movements of the age: the Progressive Movement (19001920), the New Deal (19331940) and the Great Society (19641968). Each of these reform movements looked to the government as the instrument of reform. The cornerstone of the welfare tradition in the twentieth century was the Social Security Act of 1935. This reform came out of popular demands for a national pension system for the elderly. The "Townsend Plan" was the brainchild of Dr. Francis E. Townsend, a retired California physician. The essence of the plan was that the federal government would make monthly payments of $200 to all citizens over the age of sixty. The sole stipulation was that the money had to be spent within one month. This would stimulate the demand for goods and pull the country out of depression. Five million mostly elderly citizens joined the Townsend Clubs in support of the plan. Although it was unrealistic in its approach to funding the proposed system, the Townsend Plan prompted President Franklin Roosevelt's administrationespecially Secretary of Labor Francis Perkinsto consider the plight of the elderly and the Social Security System was the result. This mandatory system of government administered pensions (paid for by contributions from both the worker and the employer) expanded to include a program for unemployment insurance (funded solely by the employer) as well as aid to disabled people and to children.

President Lyndon B. Johnson's (19631969) Great Society and his War on Povertywent on from there in its expansion of the welfare system. The War on Poverty set out to reduce unemployment by helping the poor to improve their education, skills, work efficiency, and in general, equip themselves for success in the modern economy. In an effort to get local citizens to involved themselves in the programs, local governments or private nonprofit organizations were required to prepare plans, administer them, and pay 10 to 25 percent of their cost. In the ensuing years, the Job Corps, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the College Work-Study Program, Project Head Start, Foster Grandparents, Upward Bound, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and the Office of Legal Services were all initiated as the War on Poverty's arsenal.

Almost as soon as the programs began, they were met with open opposition. Critics claimed that training costs for VISTA programs averaged more than $8,000 per graduate, and that nearly half of the graduates failed to find jobs. Others claimed that only a fraction of the poor ever received any benefits. Senator Walter Mondale once chided that the War on Poverty "authorized dreams and appropriated peanuts." Defenders claimed that the policies were stifled by the war in Vietnam.

During President Richard M. Nixon's (19691974) administration, the welfare system, partly federal and partly local in character, posed especially difficult problems. Throughout the 1960s there had been a marked expansion of relief rolls, especially in the category of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Between 1961 and 1970 the AFDC caseload rose from 921,000 to 2.2 million families, with an increase of almost 30 percent in 1970 alone. The federal welfare bill grew from $2.1 billion in 1960 to nearly $18 billion in 1972, while the number of persons on welfare rolls increased from 7.3 million in 1961 to 14.9 million in 1972. Fifteen percent of the population of New York, 25 percent of the population of Newark, NJ, and about six percent of all U.S. citizens were on welfare. Of those families receiving welfare in 1971, 49 percent were white while 46 percent were black; 55.5 percent were children, 15.6 elderly, 9.4 percent were blind or disabled, and less than one percent were employable males.

The welfare explosion was attributed to several factors. The poor were becoming more visible as they moved from isolated rural areas into cities. Rising violence and rioting in ghettos convinced many people of the necessity to do something to improve opportunities. VISTA workers, poverty lawyers, and the National Welfare Rights Organization made the poor more aware of their rights and instructed them how to get welfare payments. The Supreme Court overruled state laws that denied benefits to newcomers. And finally the growing productivity of the national economy made the continued existence of abject poverty a less defensible blot on the U.S. way of life.

The existing welfare system buckled under the new burdens thrust upon it. Critics everywhere condemned it because it required employed fathers to leave the household so that their families could qualify for public assistance. Its procedures were degrading and it helped only about a fourth of the poor. Some reformers proposed that the federal government pay the entire cost of all welfare programs. Some sociologists recommended a system of federal family allowances in which every family, rich or poor, would receive a monthly government payment for each child in the family. But critics of this system pointed to the cost (approximately $14 billion annually) and charged that it would give poor families an incentive to have more children. Moreover, they claimed that because it wasn't based on need, more than 70 percent of the money would go to families above the poverty line. Other reformers sought to reduce taxation of the poor, arguing that taxes could be brought more in line with ability to pay by reducing sales and social security taxes, and collecting more of the needed revenue through income taxes. But opponents of tax reforms argued that the poor should be made to pay taxes to make them aware of the costs of government, give them a sense of contributing to their country, and make them better citizens.

In 1969, Nixon called for the replacement of the AFDC with a Family Assistance Plan (FAP) that would give every family of four on welfare with no outside income a basic federal payment of $1,600 a year. There was also a "work requirement" in which recipients with school-age children could be referred to work or training on penalty of forfeiting a part of their FAP payments. Supporters of this path-breaking concept argued that a guaranteed annual income would stimulate economic growth. They claimed that putting money into the hands of the poor would raise consumer spending, stimulate production, and create new jobs, which would take many of the poor off welfare. Between 1968 and 1972, the Office of Economic Opportunity quietly conducted a test of the idea with seven hundred families in five communities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The results showed that nearly all of the families with guaranteed incomes worked at least as hard to add to their incomes as other families.

But the idea of a guaranteed income also had many critics. Some Democrats opposed it for partisan reasons (not wanting Nixon to take credit for the program), some because they deemed the benefits were too low and the work requirement too coercive. Some conservative Republicans opposed guaranteed income for being too liberal. Those already a part of the social welfare establishment opposed it because they had a vested interest in maintaining the existing system. After passing the House of Representatives in 1970, the proposed FAP legislation failed in the Senate. From that point on the Nixon Administration backed off from it, but the idea of a guaranteed income remained on the agenda for the future.

In 1974 a new Supplementary Security Income (SSI) replaced existing federal-state programs for needy aged, blind, and disabled who did not qualify for adequate Social Security benefits. Application of federal standards of eligibility doubled the number of persons eligible to 6.2 million. The federal government assumed responsibility for guaranteeing persons in these categories a minimum income from all sources.

During the 1990s increased pressures to reform the welfare system resulted in the federal government relinquishing a good portion of its administrative, regulative, and enforcement responsibilities to individual states. State legislatures, however, frequently implemented what some liberals claimed were draconian changes in the systemcutting benefits and squeezing the welfare system to the point where welfare recipients were allowed far fewer months of benefits and were pressed to get jobs even if the jobs were so lowpaying or so lacking in other necessary features, such as day-care provisions, that incentive to get the jobs was limited.

See also: Townsend Clubs, Social Security Act


Aaron, Henry J. Why is Welfare so Hard to Reform. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute, 1973.

Harrington, Michael. The Other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.

Lens, Sidney. Poverty Yesterday and Today. New York: Crowell, 1974.

Levitan, Sar A. Progress in Aid of the Poor for the 1970s. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969.

Wogaman, Philip. Guaranteed Annual Income: The Moral Issues. Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1969.

Welfare Policy and Substance Abuse in The United States

views updated May 08 2018


Generally speaking, the American income maintenance system is divided into two "tracks" based on the relationship of beneficiaries to the labor force. For the so-called "insurance-like" programs, notably Old Age and Survivors Insurance (what Americans refer to colloquially as "Social Security"), Social Security Disability Insurance, and Unemployment Compensation, eligibility is linked to an applicant's history of payroll deductionscontributions from wages to the public fund that supports the program. The so-called "welfare" programs, on the other hand, are "means-tested." That is, eligibility hinges on meeting strict limits on current earnings and accumulated wealth. Welfare programs are for very poor people and their benefits are substantially inferior to those paid by the insurance-like programs.

As well, the American income maintenance system is "categorical." For the most part, eligibility is based on membership in a particular category defined by administrative rules: Old age benefits are for those who meet the administrative definition of aged status; disability benefits are for those who meet the medical and vocational standards defining that category, and so forth. Except as discussed below in connection with General Assistance, there are no welfare programs for hale, nonelderly adults without children.

Finally, the income maintenance system in the United States is funded and administered by federal, state, and local (primarily county) governments. Insurance-like programs are usually funded and administered by the federal government, thus creating a significant degree of uniformity in benefits and eligibility rules. Welfare programs, however, usually are funded and administered by two or more levels of government, and benefit levels and eligibility rules vary considerably among political jurisdictions.

This article concerns the intersection of substance abuse and initial and continuing eligibility for welfare programs in the context of policy changes made during the 1990s. It focuses mainly on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and, to a lesser extent, General Assistance (GA). Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a federally funded and administered welfare program for the elderly, blind, and disabled, is the subject of a serparate entry concerned with addiction as a disabling impairment in the disability programs administered by the Social Security Administration (see Elimination of Drug Addiction and Alcoholism as Qualifying Impairments in Social Security Disability Programs).

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

For 60 years after the enactment of the Social Security Act of 1935, America's cash assistance program for impoverished families was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC; Aid to Dependent Children until 1961, when a parental or caretaker grant was added). As the result of liberal court rulings in the 1960s and the separation of casework from the financial administration of recipients' grants in 1972, AFDC became substantially free of the punishing moralism that characterized an earlier era when social workers raided the houses of welfare mothers to search closets for evidence of a "man in the house" who might be made to support the women and their children. Although various work incentives were tried over the years, particularly during the 1980s, they had indifferent results and affected relatively few recipients. Even so, only a small percentage of AFDC families remained on the rolls for years at a time, and most AFDC heads of household, the great majority of them women between 18 and 35 years old, worked part-time or intermittently while raising their children.

However, the ascendancy of the Republican Party following the November 1994 elections yielded the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 (P.L. 104-193). The PRWORA was based on premises laid out succinctly in Contract with America, the 1994 campaign manifesto drafted by Republican leaders in the House of Representatives. Contract opined that the liberal welfare regime dating from the 1960s "had the unintended consequence of making welfare more attractive than work" (p. 67). Moreover: "Government programs designed to give a helping hand to the neediest of Americans have instead bred illegitimacy, crime, illiteracy, and more poverty." Welfare reform should thus "change this destructive social behavior by requiring welfare recipients to take personal responsibility for decisions they make" (p. 65).

The PRWORA's countermeasures are a complicated combination of incentives and punishments directed at both welfare recipients and the states. The act creates a lifetime limit of 5 years's welfare receipt for TANF families. Further, its funding mechanism requires that each year the states move progressively greater numbers of TANF parents into jobs or face cuts in the overall federal grant to the state (known as a "block grant"). Each state may exempt 20 percent of its caseload from job placement, but in the long run the states are faced with the formidable task of making work-ready and placing in employment thousands of mothers with little work experience and few marketable skills. At the same time, the PRWORA permits the states a great deal of flexibility in using various funds to create training programs, support childcare, and even fund alcohol and drug treatment.

The PRWORA also requires or permits the states to enforce a variety of "behavioral requirements" for continuing eligibility for full TANF benefits. Among these is the PRWORA's permitting states to mandate treatment for alcohol and drug abusers as well as to require random drug testing under the threat of forfeited benefits. (A failed provision of the original legislation would have forced the states to implement these provisions.) However, recent research on TANF parents in some states has produced the startling (to some) finding that the prevalence of substance-abuse disorders in the adult TANF population, as measured by a rigorous standard, is very similar to that in the population at large: about 8 to 10 percent. To date, only Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, and New York have expressed serious interest in drug testing and any implementation plan will face a court test. However, a number of states, including California, are exploring mechanisms for mandatory treatment and the use of "representative payees," a third party who receives and manages a recipient's benefits.

A further drug-related provision of the PRWORA is both more stringent and more common. The act provides that unless a state passes contrary legislation, any person with a felony drug conviction for conduct after August 22, 1996 (the date PRWORA was signed into law), will be banned for life from TANF benefits. This provision, it should be noted, reflects a negotiated compromise on the House of Representatives version of the act that would have extended the ban to those convicted of misdemeanors. At this writing, nine states (Connecticut, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Vermont) have passed the legislation required to opt out of the ban. Eighteen other states have passed legislation to soften it.

In 1996, about sixty-one thousand women were convicted of drug felonies in the United States. A 1997 Legal Action Center survey of seventeen drug and alcohol treatment programs for women with children located in different parts of the country found that 21 percent of the welfare mothers in those programs had felony drug convictions. In the only study to date relevant to the TANF ban's likely effect on single mothers, attorney Amy E. Hirsch interviewed twenty-six affected women in Pennsylvania, a state that has not modified the ban. Most were convicted of possessing small amounts of drugs valued from four to one hundred dollars. Before entering treatment (where Hirsch found them), all had been heavy users, typically of crack cocaine, and most had been charged with possession with intent to deliver. In fact, they were for the most part intermediaries and small-time corner girls bagging and transporting crack and engaging in sex work to subsidized their habits. Often, they were allowed (if not encouraged) to plead guilty to a felony because only by court stipulation could they receive a residential treatment bed.

Two-parent families may also qualify for TANF and the drug-felony ban may have an important and negative cumulative impact on them, perhaps by discouraging drug-felon fathers from living with their families so as not to jeopardize the TANF benefits of the mother and children, At this writing, there are no data on this subject.

General Assistance.

General Assistance (known in some places as General Relief) is a form of welfare financed and operated entirely by state, county, or municipal governments. Many states do not have GA programs, or GA exists only in some local jurisdictions. GA benefit levels and eligibility rules also vary from state to state, and in some states, notably California and Wisconsin, from county to county. Some states (or smaller jurisdictions) provide GA benefits merely on the basis of need, but most GA programs are categorical (e.g., Oregon and Washington), restricting eligibility to older people not yet eligible for Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI); to parents waiting for TANF benefits or temporarily suspended from that program; to those with an SSI application pending; or to those who are realistically unemployable by some criteria of age and infirmity but who do not meet the stringent disability criteria of SSI. GA programs also vary in the way that benefits are paid: by cash, by rent and food vouchers, or some combination. Some GA programs are time-limited (in Pennsylvania, e.g.). All GA programs have extremely low benefits, however. In California, the most generous GA allowance is in the City and County of San Francisco, where it is about $330 per monththis in a city where the monthly fair market rent for a studio apartment now exceeds $800.

Probably because of the over representation of single men among GA beneficiaries, many jurisdictions estimate that the prevalence rate of alcohol and drug problems among GA recipients is several times that of the general population. Historically, GA has been the welfare program most accessible to people with alcohol and drug problems. During the heyday of the post-war skid row (see Homelessness, Alcohol, and Other Drugs), many large cities used some combination of cash, hotel vouchers, and restaurant chits to keep single addicted men (mainly) roughly housed and fed without giving them much money to handle. This system was largely abandoned as the cost of its administration rose. However, with the elimination of addiction as a qualifying impairment in the SSI program, some cities and counties are considering the revival of such arrangements, perhaps to be administered by community-based nonprofits and combined with mandatory treatment and representative payee provisions. Other may adopt Pennsylvania's approach. There, since 1981, diagnosed abusers of alcohol and/or other drugs may receive GA for 9 continuous months on this basis once in a lifetime so long as they are in treatment.


The thrust of recent federal welfare reform has been to rely on fiscal incentives and penalties to encourage welfare recipients to work and state governments to see that they do. As a corollary, welfare eligibility is once again being used as leverage on the behavior of poor people and drinking and drug use have been salient targets of this effortwhose complete effects remain to be seen. Given the resources (no small caveat), many state and local General Assistance programs seem inclined to follow suit.


Danziger, S., et al. (1999). Barriers to the employment of welfare recipients. Ann Arbor, MI: Poverty Research and Training Center, University of Michigan.

Edin, K., and Lein, L. (1997). Making ends meet: How single mothers survive welfare and low-wage work. New York: Russell Sage.

Gillespie, E., and Schellhas, B. (Eds.). (1994). Contract with America. New York: New York Times Books.

Hirsch, A. E. (1999). "Some days are harder than hard": Welfare reform and women with drug convictions in Pennsylvania. Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy.

Vartanian, T., et al. (1999). Already hit bottom: General Assistance, welfare retrenchment, and single male migration. In S. F. Schram & S. H. Beer (Eds.), Welfare reform: A race to the bottom? (pp. 111-127). Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press.

Jim Baumohl

Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (1996)

views updated May 29 2018

Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (1996)

Michele Estrin Gilman

Excerpt from the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act

The purpose of this [act] is to increase the flexibility of States in operating a program designed to

  1. provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives;
  2. end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage;
  3. prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and establish annual numerical goals for preventing and reducing the incidence of these pregnancies; and
  4. encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

On August 22, 1996, President William Jefferson Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) (P.L. 104-193, 110 Stat. 2105) into law, thus fulfilling his campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it." The PRWORA changed both the substance and administration of the national welfare system. The act eliminated the prior welfare system, which had been attacked for decades by policy-makers, the press, and the public for increasing government spending while making the poor dependent on government charity.

The stated purposes of the PRWORA were to reduce welfare dependency and out-of-wedlock births and to encourage the formation of two-parent families. In line with these goals, the PRWORA required welfare recipients to work within two years of receiving assistance, and it put a five-year lifetime limit on the receipt of benefits. It also ended the entitlement status of welfare benefits. In addition, the act made other, less publicized changes to several social welfare programs, both restricting the availability of benefits (making it harder for disabled children to qualify for assistance, limiting eligibility for food stamps, denying welfare benefits to most legal immigrants) and strengthening programs that aid children (reorganizing and increasing funding for child care, toughening the enforcement of rules for child support).

In addition to the act's primary emphasis on putting welfare recipients to work, the PRWORA also radically altered the way government delivers welfare benefits in three important ways:

(1) Increased role of states. To fund welfare the PRWORA provided the states with fixed block grants called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) to fund welfare, totaling $16.5 billion annually over six years. Congress also included a provision in the act that would result in TANF funding cuts if the states failed to move a required percentage of recipients into the workforce and off welfare. Nevertheless, TANF gave states extensive discretion to design and operate their own programs. This transfer of authority from the federal government to the states is called "devolution." Under devolution, states have many choices to make in shaping their welfare policiesincluding being more stringent than federal law requires. For instance, some states have chosen to limit the receipt of benefits to less than five years, to cut benefits to families with truant children, or to mandate that parents take parenting classes.

(2) Increased role of local entities. The PRWORA allowed states to devolve their authority even further to counties, local governments, or even private entities. The private entities involved in welfare administration include a wide range of for-profit companies, nonprofit companies, and religious groups. As a result, welfare programs vary widely not only from state to state but also within local jurisdictions.

This transfer of authority to private providers, an approach called "privatization," has raised questions about accountability. In other words, some critics argue that PWROWA has made it more difficult for the government to oversee programs so as to ensure quality service to recipients. The accountability of for-profit entities is of particular concern, because the incentive to earn profits can lessen the quality of services provided.

Critics also charge that privatization may cause private providers to lose their independent character as they become increasingly bureaucratic and reliant on government funding. In addition, there has been sharp debate over whether religious groups should receive government funding for delivering social services. Opponents charge that this violates the separation between church and state. Proponents hold that a spiritual approach to the delivery of social services is more effective than secular approaches.

(3) Changes in the role of welfare workers. The work-first emphasis of the PRWORA has dramatically changed the role of front-line workers, those low-level welfare office workers who interact directly with welfare clients. Before the PRWORA, front-line workers focused on two tasks: (1) verifying whether applicants met objective criteria to become eligible for assistance, and (2) issuing checks in a timely manner. By contrast, under the PRWORA these front-line workers must perform a variety of tasks, including evaluation and counseling, designed to put people to work. As a result, they have a much bigger say in decisions affecting applicants than they had previously.


The PRWORA eliminated the existing welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). AFDC was begun in 1935 as part of the New Deal response to the Great Depression. Under AFDC, welfare benefits were an entitlement. In other words, families who met objective eligibility criteria had a right to receive benefits for as long as they needed them. Moreover, the federal share of funding for AFDC rose and fell with caseload levels. Initially, federal welfare benefits were seen as a way to help impoverished, "deserving" widows stay home and raise their children. However, as time passed, critics attacked AFDC for encouraging dependency among a growing class of unmarried mothers, as well as creating a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy.

By the 1970s women had entered the workforce in large numbers. Americans were becoming increasingly hostile to aid for single mothers, who were no longer viewed as "deserving." In addition, the welfare rolls had grown dramatically, as had the cost of the program. Racial issues also played into the debate over welfare, as politicians and the media inaccurately stereotyped welfare mothers as predominantly African-American.

In the 1980s the federal government began to grant waivers, or exceptions, from AFDC requirements to states that wanted to experiment with their welfare programs. These states imposed work requirements and time limits, and they attempted to shape the behavior of welfare recipients by awarding or withholding benefits in line with the particular goals of their programs. During this time, influential conservative intellectuals such as Charles Murray argued that welfare not only failed to help poor people but also increased poverty by encouraging a culture of dependency.

After his election in 1992, President Clinton, eager to prove that he was tough on social policy issues, continued to grant states waivers from AFDC. In 1994 Republicans took control of Congress and proposed a legislative agenda called the Contract with America, which promised to enact conservative values into law. This put increased pressure on President Clinton to pass substantial welfare reform legislation and to demonstrate his credentials as a centrist politician.

Nevertheless, in 1995 President Clinton vetoed two Republican welfare reform bills that he deemed too harsh. In 1996 both political parties were under pressure to seize the initiative on welfare reform and to show results on the issue before the upcoming national elections. As a compromise, Congress presented President Clinton with the PRWORA, and the President signed it into law despite his concerns over some of its provisions. Several high-ranking administration officials subsequently resigned in protest, fearing that the PRWORA would increase poverty, homelessness, and hunger, especially in times of recession.


Before 1996 the number of people on welfare was already falling. After the PRWORA's enactment, the number continued to drop dramatically. Between 1996 and 2000, the number of people receiving welfare dropped by half, although caseloads in most states started to rise again slightly by 2001 and then to continue to fluctuate mildly. In addition, poverty rates fell to their lowest recorded levels (from 22 percent in 1994 to 19 percent in 1999), although the poverty rate never fell as dramatically as the number of welfare recipients. The dire consequences predicted by many welfare advocates did not come to pass, in part because of a robust economy and low unemployment throughout the period.

Despite the encouraging numbers, it was less clear whether welfare families were better off under the PRWORA. By the end of 2002, many former welfare recipients were working in low-wage jobs with few benefits and were no longer receiving food stamps or Medicaid coverage, even where eligible. Often, income gains from employment were reduced by the loss of public benefits. Many former welfare recipients thus remained below the poverty line. Up to a third of those who left welfare for work were back on welfare within a year, unable to obtain steady work or reliable child care.

Moreover, about 40 percent of families who left welfare were not working at all. Some of these families were discouraged from applying for benefits, many had their benefits reduced or eliminated for failing to meet program requirements, and others simply disappeared from the system. In addition, a core of TANF recipients had severe barriers to work, such as illiteracy, lack of education, health problems, or drug or alcohol dependency. Although the PWRORA offered no clear policy approaches to help families and individuals cope with or overcome such barriers, these recipients faced set time limits on assistance.


Given the breadth of the changes wrought by the PRWORA, it is not surprising that the law and its implementation have faced numerous legal challenges. The Supreme Court has heard one case arising out of the PRWORA. In Saenz v. Roe (2001), the Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for a state to provide lower TANF benefits to new state residents, because such provisions violated the constitutional right to travel between states.

In addition, several lawsuits have successfully challenged welfare offices that engaged in unfair practices, such as discouraging and deterring needy persons from applying for benefits, denying welfare beneficiaries fair hearings after their benefits were terminated or reduced, or imposing excessive sanctions on families who failed to comply with work requirements. However, other challenges have been less successful. For instance, there are court rulings upholding drug testing of welfare applicants, barring client advocates from welfare offices, and denying employment discrimination protections for employees who are working as a condition of receiving benefits.

Other lawsuits have challenged aspects of Charitable Choice, the PRWORA's requirement that states choosing to contract out welfare administration must include religious groups in the process. In 2002 a federal district court in Wisconsin struck down state funding of a faith-based, long-term residential alcohol and drug rehabilitation program, although the court did not address the constitutionality of the PRWORA.


The PRWORA required that Congress reauthorize the legislation in October 2002 or it would expire altogether. In May 2002, President George W. Bush proposed to increase the minimum work hours required of adult recipients. In addition, under his plan states would have to increase the number of recipients in the workforce from 50 percent to 70 percent by 2007. Also, President Bush proposed to fund state programs that promote marriage and encourage unwed teenagers to abstain from sex. In May 2002 the Republican-controlled House passed President Bush's proposal.

In June 2002 the Senate Finance Committee passed a more generous bill that increased child care spending, expanded the definition of work activities, and permitted states to give welfare to legal immigrants. However, the full Senate never voted on that bill. Unable to come to a consensus on these issues, Congress passed a continuing resolution to maintain TANF until March 2003, thus leaving it to the 108th Congress to bridge the divide.

See also: Aid to Dependent Children.


Blank, Rebecca M., and Ron Haskins, eds. The New World of Welfare. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2001.

Caraley, Demetrios James. "Ending Welfare As We Know It: A Reform Still in Progress." Political Science Quarterly 116, no. 4 (2001): 525.

Congressional Quarterly News Features. "After 60 Years, Most Control Sent to States." In Congressional Quarterly Almanac. Washington, DC: 1996.

Glazer, Sarah, "Are Former Welfare Recipients Better Off Today?" CQ Researcher 11, no. 27 (Aug. 2001).

Trattner, Walter, I. From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America. 6th ed. New York: Free Press, 1999.

Weil, Alan, and Kenneth Finegold, eds. Welfare Reform: The Next Act. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2002.

Welfare Reform Act (1996)

views updated May 29 2018

Welfare Reform Act (1996)

The 1996 Welfare Reform Act, officially the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, fulfilled President William Jefferson Clinton's oftrepeated campaign promise "to end welfare as we know it." It replaced the federal program of Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), founded in 1935 as part of the Social Security Act, and later known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Between the 1960s and the 1990s, AFDC's rolls increased dramatically, especially in the wealthier Northern industrial states. In accordance with the era's individualistic ideologies, welfare's actual and potential claimants now regarded welfare as a right, not a mere privilege. Conservatives denounced the federal welfare system as a communist plot and a threat to American values.

After 1970, liberals, moderates, and even welfare recipients began to join conservatives in denouncing welfare in general, and AFDC in particular. The discussions tended to accuse AFDC of things such as breaking up the family, fostering a rise in illegitimacy, and stimulating dependency, although the evidence of this was sometimes ambiguous. Some studies showed AFDC promoted the economic, legal, and cultural independence of welfare mothers; some believe that there was a gender as well as a racial basis to the criticism. AFDC permitted impoverished mothers to raise their children at home. As AFDC became increasingly generous in the 1960s and early 1970s, it at last fulfilled the original ADC's promise that mothers be paid to stay at home to raise dependent children.

By the 1990s the political and cultural climate had changed. In the new individualistic and free-market world-view that permeated American political and cultural discourse entitlement programs such as AFDC were vulnerable. As liberals and moderates adopted individualistic perspectives parallel to those of conservatives, AFDC's days were numbered. The turning point was likely the Republican Congressional victories in the 1994 elections, which convinced President Clinton to surrender the program in order to remain re-electable. Congress passed the welfare reform act in summer 1996 and President Clinton signed the bill on August 22, 1996.

The law ended AFDC. It required work in exchange for temporary relief; no more than two years could be used before parents would be working or in job training. No recipient could have more than five years of assistance cumulatively. There were a handful of concessions, such as providing new monies for childcare and medical insurance for mothers in cases in which mothers were shifting to employment. The 1996 act also destroyed the independence mothers enjoyed under AFDC. For example, single mothers could afford to attend school part time, or even full time depending on family resources, to advance themselves and qualify for better jobs than they had before. The new law of 1996 made that very difficult, because states could diminish allocations and also limit the time one was on welfare, a serious problem in a cyclical or depressed local economy. Conservative thinkers won a major victory in politics. Culturally this was also a triumph too for the free market, individualistic worldviews of those who had attacked the rationales for the New Deal and the national welfare state.

See also: Aid to Dependent Children (AFDC); Great Depression and New Deal; Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act; Social Welfare.


Grabner, William. 2002. "The End of Liberalism: Narrating Welfare's Decline, from the Moynihan Report (1965) to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (1996)." Journal of Policy History 14: 170190.

Hamilton Cravens

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