On the 20th anniversary of Welform Reform, nation needs to reset

President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonClintons send pizza to NY hospital staff treating coronavirus Budowsky: President Trump, meet with all former living presidents Why Klobuchar should be Biden's vice presidential pick MORE signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Act 20 years ago today. “Welfare Reform” as the bill was commonly called vowed to “end welfare as we know it.”

The reforms ended direct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which was replaced by block grant aid to states under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or TANF program.

The 1996 reforms came as part of the Contract with America, when conservative or Blue Dog Democrats joined the Republican Party in preaching devolution to the states as the best path to encourage innovation and tailored solutions for poor families.

Welfare Reform was deemed a success when welfare rolls initially dropped by more than 50 percent in a booming economy. 

“Most policymakers assumed that women who left welfare would find work, rely on their families, or receive help from nonprofit agencies,” according to Mimi Abramovitz.

But is the decline in welfare rolls the proper standard, 20 years later, for judging the success of the Welfare Reform?

Two subsequent outcomes suggest that other factors are far more important.

First, those who left the welfare rolls did not join the lower middle class, even after accounting for feminist efforts to crack down on deadbeat dads by collecting child support or policy changes introduced by the George W. Bush administration to “unify” families by encouraging marriage. Instead those who exited the welfare rolls often did so at the cost of means-tested benefits, which meant they were working more but losing even more in benefits. Others found jobs but did not make enough to end their eligibility for federal programs like food stamps, as was widely reported regarding workers at Walmart two years ago. The burden of childcare costs are more severe for women moving off of welfare to work than for higher income families, which means their employment and TANF policies are making them poorer, not getting them out of poverty. Thus one significant factor relevant to assessing Welfare Reform is the quality of jobs former welfare recipients have found as a path off of welfare.

The second outcome of Welfare Reform followed the Great Recession. While we have heard a lot in the past few years about income stratification between rich and poor, the gleam of any Welfare Reform success is deeply tarnished by economic stratification amongst the poor. The poorest of the poor TANF recipients lost even further ground during the recession, and those who needed to join the welfare rolls encountered cash-strapped states with the flexibility to reallocate funding to budget gaps championed by wealthier and more politically powerful constituents.

While much of the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform in 1996 promised transformative change, discriminatory state practices remain entrenched. Racial disparities among poor blacks and whites were documented in the 1930s and 1940s in the South, as social workers assumed black women could find work as domestics, and declined to approve benefits for black women at the same rate as white women.

So too were TANF’s time limit and family cap policies, adopted by most states for 80 percent or more of their welfare populations, based on a flawed understanding of women on welfare. These policies were imposed most frequently in states with large populations of people of color. Racial disparities in employment success and treatment by caseworkers following Welfare Reform’s implementation persist.

The result of these race, gender, and class dynamics, according to Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer, 3 million children in the United States of America now live in households with cash incomes of less than two dollars a day. Twenty years post-welfare reform, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFormer Obama adviser Plouffe predicts 'historical level' of turnout by Trump supporters Poll: More Republican voters think party is more united than Democratic voters Whoopi Goldberg presses Sanders: 'Why are you still in the race?' MORE is running for president under the banner of “inclusive prosperity.” Given the perils of low-wage/no- benefit jobs, family caps, childcare costs and persistent racial disparities, the intersectional aspects of welfare have remained “as we knew it.”

Should she win, the next President Clinton should do something about that.

Hancock is the author of The Politics of Disgust and the Public Identity of the “Welfare Queen” and the founder of RISIST. Follow her on Twitter @AngeMarieH


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