The War on the Poor

The welfare reform of the 1990s left millions of Americans near destitution.

We should know by now that Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF—the so-called “welfare reform” enacted in 1996—is a failure. For every 100 families in poverty in 1996, 68 received cash assistance. Now it’s only 23 in 100. Less than 1 percent of our population—just 3.1 million people—receives TANF now. Cash assistance has all but disappeared nearly everywhere. Because states have complete discretion over who will get help, two relatively generous states—California and New York—account for close to half of the nation’s welfare rolls. The other 1.7 million recipients are divided among the remaining 48 states and the District of Columbia. No wonder 7.5 million people have no income other than food stamps (now known by the acronym SNAP) at any given time. TANF is a success only by one indicator: It drastically cut government aid to the very poor.