Reauthorizing Welfare Reform

The welfare reform law of 1996 comes up for reauthorization by Congress a year from now. When enacted, it represented an end to the three-decades-old entitlement to public assistance for poor Americans, who have subsequently been pushed toward work in the expectation that they would become self-sufficient wage earners.

Across the country, welfare rolls have indeed dropped dramatically. But are former recipients better off? Two recent studies suggest that the answer may revolve around which groups one considers. This past August, the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released the report Poverty Trends for Families Headed by Working Single Mothers. It points out that the vast majority of former recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (now replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families [Tanf]) were headed by single working mothers. These, the report finds, experienced no progress in terms of poverty reduction. Many have actually grown poorer.


The study cites as the main reason for the increase in poverty among single working mothers what it refers to as contractions in government safety net programs. Thus, although the mothers did move from welfare into paying jobs, their earnings remained too low to offset the effect of the loss of cash benefits, food stamps and Medicaid in the period between 1995 and 1999 (the last year for which data was available). Ironically, in the years preceding the welfare reform law, poverty rates did drop from 1993 to 1995 among working single-mother families precisely because of growth in safety net programs. But despite the burgeoning economy, after 1995 these single working mothers fell deeper into poverty.

Not all the news has been bad, however. Both the C.B.P.P. report and another by Networkthe national Catholic social justice lobbying groupcomment on the fact that poverty rates have dropped for married or partnered heads of households. One of the goals of welfare reform’s architects, in fact, concerned the promotion of more two parent families. The Network study thus concedes that its own findings confirm the importance of stable marriages or partnerships. This increase in two-parent families has been accompanied by a leveling off of the number of children born to unwed women: another of welfare reform’s objectives. But even among so-called success storiespeople with incomes over the federal poverty line of $17,029 for a family of fourreliance on food banks, soup kitchens and other emergency services has remained an ever-present and growing phenomenon as rents around the country have continued to skyrocket.

Among the issues Congress will consider in the reauthorization process is time limits. Congress set five years as the maximum length of time recipients could receive cash benefits during their lifetimes. Some will reach the five-year limit soon. States, moreover, were allowed to set even shorter limits. This has produced a confusing mix of cutoff times. Several allow considerable flexibility, permitting the benefits to continue while reducing the cash amounts. Nevertheless, the federal time limit of five years remains as a firm endpoint, and advocates like Network want to see the limit dropped in the reauthorization process, because it can force people off assistance before they are ready to assume the challenges of independence in a down-turned economy.

Besides an end to time limits, Network has other recommendations. One is that federal, state and local governments make greater outreach efforts to alert former recipients that they may still be eligible for food stamps and Medicaid. Even for these benefits, the application procedures tend to be unnecessarily complex, raising unnecessary barriers to receiving these needed non-cash benefits.

Overall, then, Network’s assessment is that welfare reform has brought very mixed results. The emphasis on lowering caseloads, moreover, has been misplaced: reducing poverty rather than caseloads is where the emphasis should lie. Congress needs to keep this in mind as it prepares to begin its reauthorization deliberations. Related steps should involve increasing the minimum wage to the level of a living wage and responding to the affordable housing crisis by greater housing assistance for people in low-salaried jobs moving from welfare to work.

With the prospect of greatly increased military expenditures in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks, Congress may be tempted to cut spending in domestic programs like Tanf, food stamps and Child Care Development block grants. But as Sharon Daly, vice president of social policy at Catholic Charities USA, pointed out to America, spending on poor people is already inadequate. Congress must resist the temptation to make cuts of this kind that will hurt poor Americans even more.

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