Welfare Reform Turns Fifteen

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) — the controversial welfare reform law of 1996 — turned fifteen years old this month. If someone suggests to you that it has been a success, don’t believe them. But you also need to be skeptical if they tell you that it’s failed, for despite assertions by opponents and supporters alike that the PRWORA would have profound consequences, the law seems to have had only modest effects.

Reform reduced the welfare rolls, researchers agree (by some 70 percent nationwide, and even more in some states) and, at least for its first few years, it increased the employment rate among poor women with children. But well over a decade of sophisticated analysis from university scholars, think tank analysts, and government agencies has failed to consistently find any other significant results, positive or negative, confounding everyone’s expectations. How can it be that we were all so wrong?

But we should have expected this: the effects of reform have been limited because the reach of welfare itself was so limited. While public and political rhetoric might lead you to believe that welfare use was widespread, long-term, and that its benefits were overly generous, the truth is that most recipients received aid for about 18 months while they cared for a newborn child, looked for a new job, escaped an abusive relationship, or finished school. And even then, many worked (often at “under-the-table” jobs) because welfare benefits were so low: never in the history of AFDC, the pre-reform welfare program now known as TANF, were benefits in any state, even when combined with the value of food stamps, enough to lift a family above the poverty line, and welfare was almost never the only source of income in poor households. It was rarely even the main source. As a result, even at its peak, welfare had a marginal effect upon the national poverty rate, reducing it by, perhaps, one percent overall.

It’s worse now, to be sure. By 2006, the median maximum monthly benefit for a family of three brought them to 29 percent of the poverty line, compared to 35 percent in 1996 and 52 percent in 1981, according to data from the House Ways & Means Committee. But the decline long preceded the PRWORA: the real value of AFDC benefits had already fallen 51 percent between 1970 and 1996.

Moreover, to focus solely on welfare is to miss the larger and more important story of the broader erosion of American social policy: adjusted for inflation, average welfare benefits reached their peak value in 1968, the same year the minimum wage reached its peak; it was 1972 for unemployment insurance, 1981 for food stamps, and 1982 for disability insurance (although 2000 for the EITC) as analysis by Suzanne Mettler and Andrew Milstein reveals. Welfare reform might be better thought of as the end of a process, rather than the beginning of one.

What we’ve seen since reform is that for most poor families their overall household income hasn’t changed, but the mix of sources for that income has: what they’ve lost in welfare benefits they have, for the most part, made up for with income from other government programs, assistance from family and friends, work in the informal economy, and so on. Already difficult and insecure lives have been made a bit more difficult and a bit more insecure.

The safety net has become less effective at lifting people out of poverty, it is clear; it has become even less effective at lifting children out of poverty, and at lifting children out of deep poverty, as data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have shown. But welfare reform is a small portion of this failure, and absent significant (and unlikely) changes to the PRWORA when it is up for another renewal in September, its impact is likely to remain marginal. After all, for most poor Americans, the program that has been transformed from ADC in the 1930s to AFDC in the 1960s to TANF in the 1990s is now irrelevant, and rather than “ending welfare as we know it,” we have, for all but a few, simply ended welfare, a process made relatively easy because we had allowed it to be quietly whittled away for three decades.

Stephen Pimpare is adjunct associate professor of social work at Columbia University and NYU. He is the author of A People’s History of Poverty in America, winner of the Michael Harrington Book Award.

More articles by:

December 18, 2018
Charles Pierson
Where No Corn Has Grown Before: Better Living Through Climate Change?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Waters of American Democracy
Patrick Cockburn
Will Anger in Washington Over the Murder of Khashoggi End the War in Yemen?
George Ochenski
Trump is on the Ropes, But the Pillage of Natural Resources Continues
Farzana Versey
Tribals, Missionaries and Hindutva
Robert Hunziker
Is COP24 One More Big Bust?
David Macaray
The Truth About Nursing Homes
Nino Pagliccia
Have the Russian Military Aircrafts in Venezuela Breached the Door to “America’s Backyard”?
Paul Edwards
Make America Grate Again
David Rosnick
The Impact of OPEC on Climate Change
Binoy Kampmark
The Kosovo Blunder: Moving Towards a Standing Army
Andrew Stewart
Shine a Light for Immigration Rights in Providence
December 17, 2018
Susan Abulhawa
Marc Lamont Hill’s Detractors are the True Anti-Semites
Jake Palmer
Viktor Orban, Trump and the Populist Battle Over Public Space
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Fights Proposal to Keep It From Looting Medicare
David Rosen
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Binoy Kampmark
The Case that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Conviction of Cardinal Pell
Dave Lindorff
Making Trump and Other Climate Criminals Pay
Bill Martin
Seeing Yellow
Julian Vigo
The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Vacy Vlanza
The Australian Prime Minister’s Rapture for Jerusalem
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek