What ever happened to welfare reform? Our nation’s financial assistance to low-income (and usually single-parent) families was a hot-button issue in the 1990s, but since then it seems to have vanished from our collective radar. In the debates among presidential candidates of both parties, welfare reform has been obscured by other issues. Until the recent economic downturn, post-9/11 concerns about security, terrorism, immigration, Iraq, and now Iran made it hard to pay adequate attention to domestic policy in general, and social-welfare policy in particular. Yet for the millions of Americans—most of them children—whose lives are directly affected by even the slightest change in federal welfare regulations, the future of the welfare system is an important matter. While the positions staked out on this issue by candidates and their parties may appear as mere afterthoughts in this campaign season, it is a mistake for voters to think of welfare as a minor issue—or to imagine that welfare reform is finished business. Grinding poverty persists in our country, even if many of us fail to notice it.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is our nation’s major cash-assistance program for low-income families, having replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1996. TANF is small potatoes by most budgetary measures. Its $16.5 billion annual budget is tiny compared to our annual expenditures on the military ($16.5 billion would fund the Iraq occupation for a few weeks). TANF was designed to save federal money, and no one can deny that it has.
But the reformed program was also supposed to be good for the poor: it would be, we were told, both more efficient and more effective. Of course, the only way to verify its effectiveness is to study its results, but so far the federal government hasn’t shown much interest in the results. Until it does, the welfare reform of the ’90s will remain seriously incomplete. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which was passed by Newt Gingrich’s Republican-controlled Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton in the summer of 1996, called for a thorough review and reauthorization after six years. Almost twelve years later, there has still been no real review and the program has been temporarily extended rather than reauthorized. Since politicians were convinced that the welfare problem had been solved, there seemed no need to make sure that it had been.
The period of 1996–2002 witnessed so many simultaneous innovations in federal welfare policy that even ardent supporters of reform acknowledged the need for a thorough review of its effects. Insofar as these have been measured, they defy even the most informed predictions. Nobody could have known in advance how the different features of the sweeping overhaul would interact with each other and with new demographic and economic trends. The reform included the block-granting to states of what had previously been a matching-grant entitlement, time limits on benefits, work requirements, and a reduction in federal oversight of local welfare administration. States also enjoyed new freedom to impose behavioral rules on welfare recipients. If the recipients broke these rules, they lost their eligibility. States could now adopt “family caps” and exclude teenage mothers. Such policies encourage abortion and impose hardships on particular groups of applicants and recipients. This is one reason the U.S. Catholic bishops have consistently expressed serious reservations about the welfare reforms of the ’90s.
After many months of contentious debate, frustrated opponents and triumphant supporters of the 1996 law agreed on little except this: Over time, the law would surely require adjustments, corrections, fine-tuning, and revisions. Both Republicans and Democrats insisted that special vigilance would be required to insure that the reform stayed on track and responded to the many variables in play. Opponents of the law worried that vicissitudes of the business cycle and other unpredictable trends would do severe damage to the low-income families and communities most affected by the reform. Supporters emphasized the wisdom of using states as laboratories for policy change. The whole point of increasing state autonomy was—or was supposed to be—to test the states’ different policy responses. That way states could learn from the best practices of other states.
So the idea was to study the effects of welfare reform carefully—to make sure the reforms were working, and to compare one kind of reform with others. But that has not happened. No new resources have been devoted to measuring the effects of the 1996 law; and although President George W. Bush and congressional leaders drew up competing plans for a reauthorization package, none passed by the September 2002 target date. Years of capitol gridlock followed. Meanwhile, the TANF system was extended in its original form by a series of stopgap funding measures, usually in three-month increments. Finally, in spring 2007 all parties agreed to put off definitive congressional action on changing the welfare system until 2010. In the meantime, the policy can be altered only at the margins by executive orders.
In some ways, maintaining the status quo is a reasonably good outcome of the reauthorization battles. At the very least, this compromise prevents President Bush from winning approval for several changes he advocates, including more severe work requirements. It also blocks funding for his expensive and controversial marriage-promotion campaign. Much of the credit for resisting the worst of the Bush proposals should go to Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Me.) who was a swing vote on the Senate Finance Committee in 2003. Snowe insisted that Bush’s plan to push even more single mothers into the workforce could not be undertaken without a huge increase in federal child-care subsidies. By standing her ground on this point, which other Republicans viewed as a deal-breaker, Snowe effectively scuttled the president’s reauthorization package and prolonged the deadlock.
Much more could be said about the politics and ethics of the reauthorization saga, but the main problem then as now was the failure of lawmakers to review the effects of our welfare policies, including those that have been adopted by the states. Government officials must not shy away from addressing complex issues, such as the interaction of the TANF program with food stamps, Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and other work-support programs. It’s easy to forget that the 1996 welfare law was an experiment intended to last six years, not twelve or fourteen. Like any scientific experiment, social experiments have to be monitored and their results measured, especially when they concern the most vulnerable citizens in our country.
So how should we measure the effects of welfare reform? The default metric has been the decline in the national TANF caseload. While it’s true that the number of families receiving benefits has declined by about 60 percent since 1996, this statistic in isolation does not tell us all we need to know. A comprehensive evaluation of TANF must inquire into what happens to families that have left the welfare roles, voluntarily or otherwise. Only after we have measured how they are faring will we be able to say with any confidence that welfare reform has been a success. Studies of “welfare-leaver” families abound, but few government officials are paying adequate attention to the data that already exist, and still fewer have sponsored studies to gather new data.
What, then, may we hope for in the 2008 election? As a proponent of more generous social assistance to disadvantaged families, I hope for a reform of TANF. Anyone who cares about improving the welfare system will at least want the winning candidates for national office to be committed to a careful review of our current welfare policies. Are they willing to look beyond one-dimensional measures of success and consider the actual lives of the urban and rural poor? Are candidates interested enough in low-income families to push beyond a few reassuring statistics and consider the concrete burdens imposed by a welfare system that now relies almost exclusively on getting people to work rather than making sure they have enough income to feed themselves and their families, whether or not they have jobs? Will politicians spend any of the political capital they acquire in this year’s election to demand that the whole country pay serious attention to the lives and prospects of those who are struggling to survive?
If we do pay attention, it will be partly because welfare is no longer quite so prone to the politics of scapegoating as it used to be. Welfare recipients were once demonized as feckless, improvident, and lazy. One positive result of turning the welfare poor into the working poor—as recent policy has been designed to do—is that it changes the political equation that made welfare an important wedge issue of the 1980s and ’90s. Perhaps this country is finally ready to consider antipoverty policies on their merits, rather than debate the worthiness of the people these policies are designed to serve.
Our nation’s recent tendency to be utterly distracted by security issues is understandable, but it is nevertheless regrettable. Both voters and policymakers must learn to practice that quintessential twenty-first-century skill, multitasking. Without forgetting about the other large problems we face, we must find a corner of our consciousness where we can attend to the real effects of welfare reform and the real problems the poor continue to face in our society of superabundance. It is perhaps not the most frightening problem our elected leaders will address, and it certainly is not the newest. But for millions of struggling Americans, the stakes could not be higher.
This essay is part of the Issues 2008 series of commentaries on the important issues confronting the next president and Congress.