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The EditorsMarch 09, 2016
President Bill Clinton signing welfare reform legislation (Wikicommons).

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mike Evans
8 years 1 month ago
The GOP and many states are in the business of blaming poverty on laziness, drugs, and criminal irresponsibility. There is continual critical talk about any and all "entitlements" and great attention is focused on single isolated examples of fraudulent behavior. In California, the richest of states, TANF benefits have been cut nearly 20% since 2010, shifting the burden to make the poor even poorer. They also deny food stamps to all disabled. And, since the 'electricity crisis and Enron activity of 2001', all of the re-investment in welfare reform and employment training has been swiped away to balance the state budget. Meanwhile, the congress continues to make TANF benefits uneven from state to state making the 'race to the bottom' a reality. The so-called state block grants are simply a way to speed up this race and make even more people poor while refusing to serve them. The price of waging war and preparing for war has sucked all the energy from our economy, making unemployment much higher and persistent while profitable companies move all their cash off shore. Bluster will not make America great again. Only a deep examination of our collective consciences will show us the way forward.
Andrew Eppink
8 years 1 month ago
"The GOP and many states are in the business of blaming poverty on laziness, drugs, and criminal irresponsibility." Some truth is in order. Those aspects are a very large part of the problem. There's an awful lot of lying and propaganda going on re homeless people both outside the Church and within. Homeless obviously come in three groups - 1) Those obviously down on their luck, deserving of direct help 2) Those mentally disturbed needing specific, sophisticated help and 3) Those having made exceedingly poor life choices and those too lazy to work, gaming the system for all it's worth, who need a kick in the butt for an attitude change. And combinations of those, all needing help specific to their circumstances. Group 3 will obviously expand exponentially if discipline isn't imposed.
Joan Hill
8 years 1 month ago
Funny, I don't know very many homeless people who are gaming the system. Poor choices? Yes, sometimes. But poor choices are a lot more costly when you don't have a family with a decent income to back you up. Also, poor choices because you didn't grow up in a family that taught you to make good choices, and picked you up again when you didn't. More likely reasons for a family being homeless -- wildly increased rents from gentrification, eviction for condo conversion, loss of job, health problems. Almost thirty years ago (1987) the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace published a booklet "What have you done to your homeless brother? : the church and the housing problem." "Document of the Pontifical Commission 'Iustitia et Pax' on the occasion of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless." Worth reading even now. I'm reminded of a quote (from a social worker) that Mr. Rogers was said to carry in his pocket: There is no one you couldn't love once you know their story."
Robert Klahn
8 years 1 month ago
Poor life choices? In other words, they made a mistake for which they should be punished? If everybody got it right the first time this would be a perfect world. Too lazy to work? My experience has been, no one is too lazy to work when being poor means going hungry and living in dangerous conditions. Until there are jobs for all available, the idea that people are unwilling to work at jobs that don't exist is nonsense. Gaming the system? The system is awful, poverty is not fun ever, and the only people who can game the system and live well are people who are also working. Hmm...working people are the problem? Group 3 has never been significant. Until there are jobs for all it's absurd to even suggest ANYONE is unwilling to work. For decades that I have been tracking the economy, the FED has followed a policy of fighting inflation using methods that only work by putting people out of work, and into poverty. We need a policy of keeping people working, and anything that uses poverty as an economic tool is immoral.
8 years 1 month ago
Thanks for the thoughtful editorial regarding welfare reform. Your comments are spot-on. As recently reported by The Commonwealth Institute in Virginia: “In 1996, 56 in 100 poor Virginia families received cash assistance through TANF’s predecessor. By 2014, that number had fallen to 26 in 100. And it’s not because of a lack of resources. As of June 30, 2015, Virginia had $72.7 million in unused TANF funds.” Efforts to make welfare reform work in Virginia has been a high priority for groups like Social Action Linking Together, a faith-based organization that has engaged in social justice advocacy for the past 30 years and is under the leadership of John Horejsi, a 2015 recipient of the Della Strada Award from the Ignatian Volunteer Corps (IVC). Horejsi and his SALT advocates, since the commencement of welfare reform under the Clinton administration, have been urging state legislators to do a number of things to make welfare reform work: e.g., refrain from “supplantation,” a gimmick utilized by state legislators that results in TANF funding intended to be used for direct assistance to families being reduced; reinvesting the savings -- savings made available because of the reduction in the TANF caseload while the federal funding level has remained the same over the years -- in those eligible for TANF; investment in education and job training/apprenticeship programs; increasing the cash benefits for families in order to keep up with inflation (since 1995, when TANF was created, there have been only two increases in the benefit); take full advantage of child support payments by the non-custodial parent that can be passed through to recipients; an annual school supplies and clothing allowance for TANF children in school. Thanks to the perseverance of SALT advocates and a handful of state legislators committed to make TANF work for the most vulnerable, a few of the initiatives noted above were realized in the 2016 Virginia General Assembly via legislation and budget amendments. SALT wants to encourage the Editors of America to continue their challenge to candidates to provide “detailed proposals…on how to adapt the welfare reform law to current realities.” Robert Stewart Ignatian Volunteer and Coordinator of Public Affairs for SALT
Joan Hill
8 years 1 month ago
Very helpful article. A couple of points. TANF needs to be adjusted by location. I think some costs are higher in big ticket cities like Boston, New York, San Francisco, than, say, in the rural South. And ceiling for "poverty level" needs to be much higher. I've found it helpful in discussions to ask the speaker to say just what amount "poverty level" means. Appalling. Wish policy makers would treat TANF and other programs the way they do grants to businesses -- as an investment. Every cent of this money is going back into the local economy -- for food, rent, baby items, drugstore purchases -- not to mention the human investment in strengthening families. My third point is tricky, and I'm sure I'll get feedback. I believe that any woman who wants to should work for her own satisfaction and career development. But women who want, or need, to stay home with their children should be enabled to do so. A number of years ago a major women's magazine had a campaign with the slogan "Every mother is a working mother." There is the argument "Oh, they'll just sit home and watch television." Well, one of my favorite cartoons shows a husband coming home to a messy apartment -- dishes in the sink, soggy diapers, vacuum in the corner. The caption has the wife saying "Honey,you know the 'nothing' I do all day? Well, today I didn't do it." Lots of work to be done to get a just and livable income for everyone.
Ernest Martinson
8 years 1 month ago
Government should not give grants to businesses. If a business cannot compete by satisfying the demands of customers, then that business is free to declare bankruptcy. A woman should be free to do what she wants, even outside existing puritanical laws. But she should not be free to be a ward of the state, supported by legal theft of the earnings of labor and capital.
JR Cosgrove
8 years 1 month ago
I want to ask the editors what has caused the high illegitimacy rate in the country? And also ask the editors what affect has this on the ability of children to grow up as productive workers? Answer please.
Richard Booth
8 years ago
For the most part, I agree with Robert Klahn's assessment of the situation. Societies have a fundamental obligation to house, feed, provide work, and enable those whose difficulties are overwhelming. To suggest that the stereotypes mentioned above in Robert's remarks are appropriate would be, as we say today, "revictimizing the victim." The social structure is unjust and unethical in the first instance and, given the challenges of beneficial social change, are not likely to ever become utopic. We are back to an earlier age: a resurgence of the Philanthropic Movement. This is the primary way the underserved are surviving today. What a country!!

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