From the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, a number of developments turned out to have profound effects on destitute families in the United States, which Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer’s “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” brings into sharp relief. Critics of welfare repeatedly argued that the increase of unwed mothers was mainly due to rising rates of welfare payments through Aid to Families With Dependent Children (A.F.D.C.). Even though the scientific evidence offered little support for this claim, the public’s outrage against the program, fueled by the “welfare queen” stereotype that Ronald Reagan peddled in stump speeches during his 1976 run for the presidency, led to calls for a major revamping of the welfare system.
In 1993, Bill Clinton and his advisers began a discussion of welfare reform that was designed to “make work pay,” a phrase coined by the Harvard economist David Ellwood in his 1988 book “Poor Support.” Ellwood, one of Clinton’s advisers, argued that to ease the transition from welfare to work, it would be necessary to provide training and job placement assistance; to help local government create public-sector jobs when private-sector jobs were lacking; and to develop child care programs for working parents. President Clinton’s early welfare-reform proposal included these features, as well as another component that Ellwood submitted — time limits on the receipt of welfare once these provisions were in place.