The 20th Anniversary of “Ending Welfare As We Know It”

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August 22, 2016, Atlantic and New York Times

Twenty years ago, on August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton, after promising to “end welfare as we know it,” signed into law legislation that replaced Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This “welfare reform” was intended to encourage self-sufficiency by imposing work requirements and limiting lifetime government benefits.

Authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer for the Atlantic, and Governor John Kasich (who supported the legislation while in Congress) for the New York Times, both agree that it is deeply flawed. But they offer opposing views as to why welfare in America today is broken.

Edin is a poverty expert at Johns Hopkins University. Shaefer is an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Their book, $2.00 a Day: Living On Almost Nothing in America, is often compared to Michael Harrington’s The Other America in the 1960s. Here are the latest statistics and their analysis.

As of 2012, according to the most reliable government data available on the subject, roughly 3 million American children spend at least three months in a calendar year living on virtually no money. Numerous other sources of data confirm these findings. According to the most recent data available (2014), TANF rolls are now down to about 850,000 adults with their 2.5 million children—a whopping decline of 75 percent from 1996. TANF was meant to “replace” AFDC. What it did in reality was essentially kill the U.S. cash welfare system.

Mr. Kasich blames the system’s methodology for TANF’s failure.

At the root of the challenge is a fundamental disconnect between our worker-training and welfare systems. For example, caseworkers are pushed to focus on finding jobs for those who are easiest to return back to work and to avoid those who need the most help. Those left behind often end up in “make-work” jobs that may count for federal work requirements but do absolutely nothing to help people get ahead by giving them the skills they need for meaningful employment.

Mr. Kasich asserts that by 2005, Congress reduced the ability of the states to be innovative in the effort to help people escape poverty. Kasich holds that the federal government imposed “a one-size-fits-all approach that sets arbitrary time limits on education and training for people seeking sustainable employment.” Edin and Shaefer counter that what the country got was a new kind of “welfare queen.”

States, not people, are using TANF to close the holes in their budgets. It is states, not people, who are falling prey to the “perverse disincentives” of welfare.

Whatever one’s view may be of the nation’s progress in welfare reform, Edin and Shaefer offer two figures that are particularly chilling. The number of families dependent on food pantries is the highest ever recorded, and the number of people giving blood plasma in exchange for cash has tripled in the last decade. If President Johnson were alive today, he would have to concede that we lost his “war on poverty,” with no victory in sight worth celebrating.

NPQ has written many times on this subject, with perhaps the most comprehensive review being this lengthy discussion in late 2015. The 20th anniversary of this legislation at minimum reminds us all of the need to keep trying to do the best we can as a country and in our respective communities to help meet the needs of the poor. As Mr. Kasich stated by way of concluding his New York Times op-ed, “Improving welfare shouldn’t be something that happens once in a lifetime.”—James Schaffer