In the decade after President Clinton signed the 1996 welfare-reform law, the story line was set: With welfare rolls down by two-thirds, it was a great, bipartisan success. And those who had warned of the dangers of a weakened safety net on the lives and health of poor children had been indulging in apocalyptic fear-mongering.
Many low-income single moms did indeed find work in the early years following welfare reform, which also coincided with a roaring economy and an increase in supports like the earned-income-tax Ccedit.
But recent reports confirm some of those long-forgotten warnings: the newer version of welfare — a federal block grant that the states can administer pretty much any way they want — works only when there are sufficient jobs available for low-skilled workers. When times get tough, not so much.
Welfare as we knew it (the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children) was created during the Great Depression to, well, aid families with dependent children during periods of high unemployment. When unemployment rose, the program could expand as more people became eligible and got help.
But the welfare as we now know it, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, wasn't designed to work that way. The federal block grants established in the 1996 law were capped and have not increased, nor have they been adjusted for inflation. So while poverty in the United States has increased dramatically since the beginning of the current recession, the welfare rolls have not. Welfare no longer serves as the safety net it once was. Under AFDC, 75 percent of American families under the poverty line received cash assistance. With TANF, only 27 percent do, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). Pennsylvania's ratio dropped from 85 percent before welfare reform to 39 percent now.
The most vulnerable have felt the effects. Robert Greenstein of CBPP told the House Budget Committee last week that the change in welfare laws was a primary factor in a substantial increase of deep poverty — that is, children living in families below half the poverty line of $11,157 for a family of four — which has doubled since 1995.
More than a million more children are kept out of deep poverty by food stamps — now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, —which continue to work the way welfare used to, increasing with the need. For example, cash assistance in Pennsylvania has increased 2.6 percent since 2007, while food stamps have gone up 57.1 percent in that period, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.