Twenty years since welfare reform, what are the results?

Has President Clinton’s plan to reduce the dependency on welfare been realized, or are people still struggling for a helping hand?

Twenty years ago former President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, commonly known as the Welfare Reform Act.  The Act ended the traditional welfare system, formerly known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), in which poor Americans were entitled to receive financial support from the federal government.  Under the revised system, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), applicants have to meet strict requirements—that may vary from state to state—in order to get the assistance that they need.

During the 1996 White House Bill signing ceremony, then President Bill Clinton stated, “We’re going to make it all new again, and see if we can’t create a system of incentives which reinforce work and family and independence.”  The purposes of the TANF program, as listed on their national website, are to: “Provide assistance to needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes; reduce the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage; prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.” With the revised program being in effect for twenty years now, the results of the program have been mixed.

Under TANF, in order to receive any type of assistance, recipients of the program are required to work as a condition.  The purpose of the change within the welfare reform was to prevent “prolonged welfare dependence,” which reformers believed was harmful to recipients and to society.  In order to prevent the dependence of recipients the drafters believed that “imposing work requirements on benefits would cause families to rely less on traditional welfare and more on formal employment.”  There is also a maximum time limit on how long an individual can continue to receive welfare benefits—5 years, and for some states it is even lower.  The time limit stems from the idea that if people knew their benefits would not last, they would be more encouraged to find a job.  Based on the results, this has not been the case.

Are recipients really better off with the new limits that were imposed on them twenty years ago? 

With the welfare reform in the works for the last twenty years, the results can be seen as both good and bad.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the numbers of families in poverty have increased since the welfare reform that was enacted in 1996.  But in 2014, fewer families received welfare benefits than in 1996, three times as less.  It seems as though the welfare reform, while helping some, had the opposite effect of what the program intended.  Even though less people are receiving welfare currently, the federal government is spending more on other programs—such as nutrition, housing and educational programs—that also help the poor.

When looking at all the changes that have taken place under the welfare reform, the question becomes whether the overall impact is in line with the initial goal.  Are recipients really better off with the new limits that were imposed on them twenty years ago?  Are they really less dependent than before?

Before the welfare reform, under the traditional welfare system (AFDC), majority of the recipients receiving aid were single parents.  Single parents receiving benefits fall under the category of “non-married families with children” because such families also often include other adults in the household, such as “grandparents, relatives, boyfriends, and non-married fathers in addition to the single mothers.”  In 1995, the poverty rate with welfare benefits of unmarried families with children was 27.5 percent; in 2014 the poverty rate for that same group was 22.9 percent.  When comparing the poverty rate of single parents to married families with children, there is a significant difference in the numbers.  In 1995, the poverty rate for married families with children was 4.8 percent.  In 2014 the rate actually went up to 5.6 percent.  Based on the statistics, it seems as though the welfare reform might have more of a negative effect on those recipients who were unaffected before the reform took place.  In contrast, it seems to have more of an effective outcome with single parents—but even within the class of recipients that welfare reform has helped the most, some of them are still struggling.

Natasha Williams, is a New Orleans resident who often finds herself short on funds and struggles daily in order to makes ends meet for herself and her son.  Williams, like many others, is not on welfare.  In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), she recalls having an accident while she was homeless and lived out of her car.  This happened shortly after she lost her job and was evicted.  When asked why she did not get government benefits, her reply was, “it’s just not worth it.”  Williams stated that the benefits she was being offered were “extremely low” and in order for her to receive the benefits she would have to take time off from her then current job in order to go to a program to find out how to get a job.  Even while she was working, she was still homeless because she did not make enough money to have a home.  “Why look for a job if I already have a job?  Why can’t I just get a little help?  It didn’t really make sense to me.” she told NPR.  Williams is currently unemployed and is looking for work, but is now living in an apartment through a nonprofit organization that assists with her with paying her monthly rent.  Situations like Williams’ are a few of the many unexpected detriments from the welfare reform of 1996.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, only 23 percent of families with children living in poverty receive welfare—compared to the 68 percent in 1996.  States vary on the percentage and flexibility of individuals on welfare; for example, Oregon has far more people receiving benefits through the welfare program than Louisiana does.  One could argue that the reason why less people receive government benefits is because there are less people living in poverty than before.  On the other side, one could also strongly argue that the reason why less people are receiving government benefits is not because there are less people that need it, but because the states are distributing fewer funds under the welfare reform.  Experts and Economists are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to determining if the 1996 welfare reform made “poor Americans better off.”

There are still major problems concerning the poverty rate in the United States that need to be addressed.

Marketa Garner Walters, the secretary of the Department of Family and Children Services in Louisiana, believes that TANF is “not the most accessible or user-friendly” program.   She told NPR, “We have to figure out how to meet our clients where they are and how to make the help that we are giving them more accessible and readily available.”  Walters believes that since the welfare reform, state spending on welfare has been slashed.  The welfare reform law that Clinton signed in 1996 gave states the power to use federal TANF funds for things other than welfare—such as educational programs.

It seems that the anticipated goal twenty years ago has been “partially” reached.  Ron Haskins, who helped write the reform bill as a GOP congressional aide, notes that giving the states too much flexibility under the welfare reform was a “big mistake,” because individuals who were at the lower end of the economy are worse off that they were before.  Despite the shortcomings from the welfare reform, Haskin believes that the law has accomplished a lot.  He told NPR, that the welfare reform has helped millions of low-income women enter into the workforce.  Haskins also mentions that even though recipients may not have their “ideal” job, he believes that their families are better off economically, and thinks the welfare reform has worked well.

Twenty years ago, the vision was to encourage poor people to find jobs in order to support themselves financially before their benefits ran out.  That initiative was supposed to reduce poverty and avert away from long-term dependency of the system.  Twenty years later, in 2016, there are still major problems concerning the poverty rate in the United States that need to be addressed.  It will be interesting to see what new ideas or reforms, if any, will be implicated in order to combat this growing concern.

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About Amaka Madu, Senior Staff Writer Emeritus (18 Articles)
Amaka Madu is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She is originally from Raleigh, North Carolina and graduated from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Political Science. Following her first year of law school, Amaka interned at the North Carolina Court of Appeals with Honorable Judge Tyson and during the second half of her summer, she participated in the Baylor Academy of the Advocate study abroad program in St. Andrews, Scotland. Amaka also currently serves as Secretary for Campbell University’s Black Law Student Association.
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