Twenty years ago this month, President Bill Clinton signed the landmark Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better known as welfare reform, into law. Designed to move parents — especially single mothers — from welfare into work, the bill changed an open-ended cash benefit, Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), to a more limited entitlement, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Welfare reform was hardly perfect; no legislation is. And antipoverty policy certainly can be made better. But the 1996 act was anything but disastrous.
Critics at the time predicted a disaster, and a new round of doomsayers has emerged following the Great Recession. During this year's presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders claimed that welfare reform was "an absolute disaster," and "its provisions need to be repealed." Sen. Sanders echoed a view, now common on the left, that the 1996 law ripped a hole in the safety net through which the poorest of the poor have fallen.
This criticism has been growing for years, but received its most powerful support recently in "$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America", a widely cited 2015 book by sociologists Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer. They claimed that millions of American children are in families that subsist on extremely low levels of income; that their number rose sharply over time; and that welfare reform is to blame.
Welfare reform was hardly perfect; no legislation is. And antipoverty policy certainly can be made better. But the 1996 act was anything but disastrous. Here's why:
The law intended to move families off cash welfare and into the workforce. It did. From 1980 to 1996, employment among never-married mothers rose by less than 10 percentage points. In the three years from 1996 to 1999, the rate jumped by roughly 15 percentage points. After 2000, employment among never-married mothers drifted downward; but in 2013, their employment rate was still over 10 percentage points higher than in 1996.
In 1996, there were 50 AFDC families for every 100 female-headed families with children. Two years later, that ratio was down to 34. By 2000, it had fallen to 25 TANF families per 100 female-headed families with children. In 2008, on the eve of the Great Recession, there were 17 TANF families per 100 female-headed families with children, the same as last year.
Had welfare reform simply moved people off the rolls without leaving them better off, it might not have been worthwhile. But in fact, single mothers and their children benefited...
Photo by Mark Lyons / Stringer (Hulton Archive)