Has Welfare Reform Been a Major Success, as Romney Claims?

August 7, 2012; Source: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities

Was welfare reform a good thing or bad thing—and why is welfare reform turning into a campaign issue between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney?

Remember that in 1996, under President Clinton, the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program was replaced by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, the breakthrough step of welfare reform. According to a new report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), “(w)ith the TANF block grant in place, the cash assistance safety net for the nation’s poorest families with children has grown weaker, not stronger.” Under welfare reform, states can use their share of the $16.5 billion in TANF funds plus their own required “maintenance of effort” (MOE) dollars for a variety of program activities, including “assisting needy families so children can be cared for in their own homes or the homes of relatives; reducing the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage; preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.”

Initially, states used their TANF moneys for increased child care for welfare families and for welfare-to-work training and job preparation, but as time passed, something else happened: “(S)tates redirected a substantial portion of their TANF and MOE finds to other purposes, with some funds being used to substitute for (or ‘supplant’) existing state spending and thereby help plug holes in state budgets or free up funds for purposes unrelated to low-income families or children,” CBPP notes. Counterintuitively, in response to the recession, “many states cut already-low TANF benefit amounts further, shortened TANF time limits, or took other actions to shrink caseloads or keep them from rising much in the face of mounting need.” The CBPP report contains much more to suggest that welfare reform, if it ever worked, isn’t working now and isn’t helping the burgeoning numbers of families it should during this persistent recession.

But don’t tell that to Mitt Romney and his supporters. The newest campaign charge launched at the Oval Office is that President Obama is “gutting” welfare reform. Romney and his allies say that the president is dropping work and job-training requirements for welfare. The administration contends that it has granted waivers to some states to experiment with “new ways of meeting the work requirements,” but the Romney campaign is portraying that as part of a subterfuge to turn back the clock and bring back “old welfare.”

The PolitiFact.com fact-checking program of the Tampa Bay Times awarded Romney’s charge the “pants on fire” rating, the bottom of the barrel for political truth-telling. PolitiFact examined the Department of Health and Human Services memo that sparked the Romney charges and found it was written in bureaucratic gobbledygook but does not support Romney’s charges one scintilla. The openness to innovative welfare program strategies may warrant a regulatory review, as suggested by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, but “gutting” welfare reform and returning to the days of AFDC is nowhere to be found in the HHS policy, except in the minds of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, who joined Romney in the misleading characterization of the policy.

Romney claims that welfare reform has been an “unprecedented success.” The CBPP report doesn’t seem to support that. Since nonprofits work with TANF recipients all the time, what is your read on the president’s new TANF waivers and the success or failure of the current TANF trajectory?—Rick Cohen

  • michael


    You really should use more objective citations than just Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and Poli-fact…it makes you seem shrill.

    Did you actually read the HHS memo on the waivers? I have. HHS gives examples of the sort of waivers they want to grant, and they weaken work requirements. For example, HHS said states “may want to consider”

    “Projects that test systematically extending the period in which vocational educational training or job search/readiness programs count toward participation rates, either generally or for particular subgroups, such as an extended training period for those pursuing a credential.”

    In otherwords, you continue to get a welfafre check for ‘job training’ or ‘work-readiness’ even though the time limits say you should be out of the program and getting a job. The net effect will be the creation of lots of phone ‘job-training’ programs which will keep the poor forever on the dole….and it was just this Culture Of Dependency which Clinton cited when signing the reforms back in ’96.

  • Jacque

    In response to Michael’s post: I agree that Rick should widen his references.

    I think that any changes on “welfare reform” might better be assessed by opening dialogue with credible recipients or past recipients of welfare, whether ADFC or TANF. By “credible,” I am talking about people who really had a need, experienced it as the only means of surviving life and its challenges, and tried or succeeded in escaping its addictive, not always self-serving, grip that politicians and society have labelled as “dependency.”

    I am not sure if the issue of welfare should be such an open political debate when it is so personal for the many recipients who lived it or is living it. If the media, this includes social media as well, portrays welfare recipients as “can’t be nothing don’t want nothing” citizens then how serious of an issue, besides the tremendous amount of dollars spent on welfare assistance, can it be in the minds of people who never lived the experience? Primarily, this includes the politicians who can’t seem to get it right no matter what it’s called.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Jacque and Michael: Thanks to both of you for your comments. For Michael, yes, I did look at the HHS document, a turgid piece of bureaucratic prose if there ever was one. As a longtime local government recipient of guidance memoranda from federal agencies, though in my case, mostly from HUD, not HHS (HUD is no better than HHS for its prose), I saw the HHS memorandum as introducing a little flexibility in some of the requirements due to what it takes to get people placed into jobs in a job market that’s pretty horrendous. I didn’t see it as a subterfuge as you do. And while you might consider CBPP to be liberal leaning, “shrill” is hardly the word for a CBPP analysis. The newswire examines the CBPP report, so picking the CBPP as a source article is a source article question, not more, not leass. Jacque, it was only a newswire. I do have lots of additional information on welfare reform, as I closely monitored welfare reform during the Clinton Administration and read lots of analyses pro and con in the lead-up to the legislative changes. As a former city official in a low-income community, in charge of many programs that served the client group you’re referring to, I do have m own direct experience with welfare recipients, in addition to my own background of having been raised in low-income public housing. You’re right that politicians often don’t get it right, but you’ve given a good justification for the need for community organizing in low imcome communities so that AFDC or now TANF recipients can speak for themselves, regardless of what Rick, Michael, Jacque, or the CBPP might think. Thanks again for your comments.