The Failure of Welfare Reform

How Bill Clinton’s signature legislative achievement tore America’s safety net.

If you want a sense of how thoroughly America’s welfare system has decayed thanks to the reforms Bill Clinton signed into law two decades ago, consider Arizona.

Despite being home to one of the nation’s most crushing child poverty rates, the state has all but stopped giving cash assistance to its needy. During 2014, for every 100 poor families with children in Arizona, just 8 families received aid. And even that tiny fraction is likely to shrink. Last year, while trying to chip away at a $1 billion budget deficit, lawmakers lowered the maximum amount of time Arizonans could receive welfare payments before being kicked off the rolls permanently—it’s now just 12 months.

This was a first. Most states enforce a five-year time limit. Some, including Arizona, have gone as low as two years. None had tried the one-year-and-you’re-out approach.
The move was expected to save up to $9 million—for perspective, the state’s board of tourism spends about three times that much annually—while cutting off aid to some 2,700 children. Nonetheless, Republican state Sen. Kelli Ward, who is now challenging John McCain for his U.S. Senate seat, said that the 12-month cutoff would “encourage the able-bodied to treat welfare like a safety net rather than a hammock.” The line might have been more convincing if benefits for a family of three in Arizona didn’t already max out at a miniscule $278 per month. Some hammock.

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