20 Years Since Welfare Reform

America’s poorest are still dealing with the consequences of the legislation that Bill Clinton signed into law two decades ago today.

As recently as April of this year, former president Bill Clinton defended the welfare reform bill he signed into law on August 22, 1996—twenty years ago today—as one of the great accomplishments of his presidency. The bill scrapped the welfare program known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) and created a new one that lasts to this day—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). There was a grandiose idea behind the change: TANF was no simple safety net; it was also meant to be a springboard to self-sufficiency through employment, which it encouraged recipients to find by imposing work requirements and limiting how long they could receive benefits.

Today, across the country, welfare is—at best—a shadow of its former self. In much of the Deep South and parts of the West, it has all but disappeared. In the aftermath of welfare reform, there has been a sharp rise in the number of households with children reporting incomes of less than $2 per person per day, a fact we documented in our book, $2 a Day. As of 2012, according to the most reliable government data available on the subject, roughly 3 million American children spend at least three months in a calendar year living on virtually no money. Numerous other sources of data confirm these findings. According to the most recent data available (2014), TANF rolls are now down to about 850,000 adults with their 2.5 million children—a whopping decline of 75 percent from 1996. TANF was meant to “replace” AFDC. What it did in reality was essentially kill the U.S. cash welfare system. (We use the term “cash welfare” to distinguish it from other forms of assistance, such as housing vouchers and food stamps, which have pre-designated uses.)

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