Welfare rolls have dropped more than 50 percent over the past decade. Former President Bill Clinton, who spearheaded welfare reform through the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, promised to end welfare as we know it. Now he, along with Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Michael O. Leavitt, are claiming success as welfare reform prepares to enter its second decade. There has indeed been some success, but it was primarily confined to the first few years after the legislation went into effect. Child poverty fell and employment rates for single mothers rose. In addition, positive changes came about in the child support enforcement system, which helped some mothers to leave welfare behind. An expanded Earned Income and Child Tax Credit program helped too, along with more funds for child care subsidies and health care for children and low-income working families.
Since 2000, however, welfare reform’s positive thrust has been blunted. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in a recent report issued jointly with the Center for Law and Social Policy, in 2004the latest year for which data are availableapproximately 1.5 million children fell into poverty between those years. Similarly, employment rates among single mothers have fallen. This situation led to an increase in the number of single mothers who are both jobless and who, because of new restrictions, receive no help from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (the new name for Aid to Families With Dependent Children). One sign of this step backward was highlighted in a statement in mid-August by the Rev. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, who pointed out that over the past few years, Catholic Charities agencies across the nation have seen a significant increase in people seeking food, clothing and housing...as people have left welfare.
Aggravating the problem further is the Deficit Reduction Act passed earlier this year. Because of this legislation, the Department of Health and Human Services has narrowed the guidelines of what constitute acceptable work activities that are required of TANF recipients, who are obliged to work at least 30 hours a week. Formerly, for instance, community service programs could count as acceptable activities, but now the number of acceptable types of such programs has been reduced. Moreover, TANF reauthorization provisions in the Deficit Reduction Act have made it more difficult for states to design welfare-to-work programs to match the needs of those with significant barriers to employment, such as physical or mental disabilities. Some states have found that the easiest way to meet the new, more rigid restrictions is simply to make TANF available to fewer poor people. The restrictions suggest, the report notes, that the real effect of the Deficit Reduction Act is not to lift people out of poverty, but simply to reduce caseloads.
Despite the new restrictions, certain states have taken a proactive approach that demonstrates what can be done. Oregon, in its Portland-based program operated by local community colleges, has succeeded in increasing the number of TANF recipients who receive both education and training, which in turn has led to an increase in employment rates. Studies have shown that as little as one year of education or training can lead eventually to economic independence. Currently almost half of all recipients lack even a high school diploma, an important qualification for many jobs. But the regulations imposed by the Deficit Reduction Act impose restrictions on education too, including the kinds of post-secondary education that are among the most secure avenues to earning a living wage.
What, then, lies ahead in the next decade of welfare reform? Much will depend on whether the federal governmentinstead of cutting the expenditures needed to free people trapped in povertyshows more willingness to cut elsewhere and to ensure income support for single mothers and their children, as well as for those facing the greatest barriers to employment. So far, it has shown little such willingness, as can be seen in Congress’s refusal in August to raise the minimum wage. Sept. 1, 2007, will thus mark another anniversary, a sad onethe tenth since the minimum wage was increased in 1997 to $5.15 an hour. Even working people with incomes above the poverty line have not been able to keep up with inflation, while the salaries of C.E.O.’s reach unprecedented heights. And now, the U.S. Census Bureau’s recently released report for 2005 shows that the poor have become poorer. Congress and the administration should keep welfare reform moving forward in positive ways, instead of creating new rules that, in Father Snyder’s words, will force states to cut off support to vulnerable families...in their transition to independence.