Twenty years ago President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, better known as welfare reform. Among other provisions, the law required that able-bodied adults go to work within two years of receiving assistance and imposed a lifetime limit of five years of welfare benefits. The American Catholic bishops called the law “deeply flawed” and harmful to “hungry children.” At the time we noted the “laudable goal of moving people from demeaning dependency to dignifying work” but concluded, “this is not welfare reform but a redistribution of income—from the stigmatized poor to the fortunate classes” (“The ‘Other’ America Revisited,” Editorial, 8/31/1996).
The law has had some limited success in moving people into the workforce. The program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, covers far fewer households than its predecessor (Aid to Families With Dependent Children), but that does not necessarily mean that fewer families need help. According to recent research by two scholars, Kathryn Edin and Luke Schaefer, the number of families living on $2 or less a day per person more than doubled between the enactment of welfare reform and 2013, to 1.6 million households. The number of children living in these extreme-poverty households also doubled, to 2.8 million. By 2013, only 26 percent of families in poverty were receiving welfare assistance, down from 68 percent in 1996.
Other programs, including food stamps, can alleviate poverty. The expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit has benefited households that have been able to find even low-wage work, and the Affordable Care Act has improved access to health care for low-income families. But in some circumstances, especially where there are few jobs for less-educated workers, there is no substitute for direct cash assistance.
At a minimum, the TANF program should be funded to keep up with inflation. It now takes the form of block grants to the states, and it has been stuck at $16.5 billion for the past two decades. TANF should also be supplemented with—and not replaced by—child care assistance for those who can find work, as well as training programs for those whose skills do not match employer demands. In 2011, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called on Congress to “strengthen the program so that it better serves families and individuals in need to help them make a successful transition to work.” The bishops also criticized higher work requirements for two-parent families than for single-parent families, as well as the imposition by many states of a “family cap” that denies benefits to children born in families already receiving assistance—a violation of both pro-life and social justice principles.
We should also reconsider the question of block grants to the states, as opposed to nationally uniform requirements and application procedures for welfare. In 2012-13, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, three states (California, Oregon and Vermont) provided TANF benefits to a clear majority of all families living in poverty, but 10 states, including Georgia and Texas, provided benefits to less than one-tenth of all families in poverty. This disparity raises questions of whether some states are discouraging eligible families from applying for assistance, violating the spirit of the law. Though the principle of subsidiarity supports local administration, the Catholic bishops expressed concerns in 1996 about ceding too much authority to the states, for fear they would engage in what America called a “race to the bottom” to cut benefits. Under the welfare reform act, states that cut welfare rolls can shift the savings not only to work-training initiatives but also to programs, like child care, that they had previously funded themselves. The safety net has thus been weakened under the guise of local control.
For several years now, state and national policymakers have been revisiting the “tough on crime” laws of the 1990s to see what works and what should be changed. The welfare reform act merits the same scrutiny, and it should be judged by the standard articulated by Pope Francis in “Laudato Si’”: any social development “which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress” (No. 194).
Few are calling for outright repeal of the law, and the consensus is that work requirements are appropriate for adults who can, in fact, find jobs. But there should be flexibility for cases when employment is simply not available, and the federal government should take the lead to ensure that no child in any state falls deeper into extreme poverty.
Reducing poverty should be a major issue when 72 percent of Americans (including 62 percent of Republicans) say it is “very” or “extremely” important, according to a recent Associated Press poll. We hope to hear detailed proposals from the candidates on how to adapt the welfare reform law to current realities.