Welfare policy in the United States is controversial. Given the country’s ethos of individualism and self-reliance, the public often blames the poor for their misfortunes and views those who receive public aid with distrust. Historically, both cash aid and publicly supported poorhouses reflected the philosophy that aid was meant mainly for widows with children and the indigent. The government’s approach to aid rests on a delineation of those who are worthy and unworthy.
The first welfare programs emerged following widespread unemployment during the economic downturn of the 1930s. Triggered by the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression was an era of rampant poverty; working-class families and the elderly were the hardest hit. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs sought to provide relief to unemployed workers and their families. One of these was the Social Security Act of 1935, which marked the beginning of sustained U.S. welfare programs. This act created three programs: Old Age Assistance, Aid to the Blind, and Aid to Dependent Children, providing means-tested entitlements to low-income elderly, the blind, and poor children with absent fathers, respectively.
Other welfare programs were subsequently added since the 1935 Social Security Act. Between 1939 and 1943, the U.S. Department of Agriculture administered the first food stamps program. The U.S. food stamps program expanded throughout the 1960s and 1970s. By 1974, 15 million Americans were participating in this program. In 1965, Title XIX of the Social Security Act was passed, allowing low-income individuals access to a health insurance program now known as Medicaid.
Changes to the welfare system have occurred since these programs were enacted. For example, the Old Age Assistance and Aid to the Blind in 1974 later became known as Supplemental Security Income. Aid to Dependent Children later became known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which was a federal program administered to provide financial assistance to needy families. AFDC later expanded its services through the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act by providing services around community development, job training, and housing. AFDC and other programs expanded in the 1970s due to increased activism among the poor and to changes in household composition. The program significantly reduced the number of poor Americans, especially among the elderly. The poverty rate dropped to a low of 11 percent in the 1970s, from a high of over 25 percent before the War on Poverty began in the 1960s. AFDC was subject to state-level funding and gave discretion to local service providers. The program continued the tradition of subjecting U.S. welfare aid recipients to public controls through means-tested measures.
Why Is Welfare Controversial?
The values and beliefs held by Americans often influence their opposition to welfare. Thus passage of welfare reform in the mid-1990s was due in part to the unpopularity of welfare and the feeling that those on welfare should become self-reliant. In the 1980s, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, myths of welfare queens (those who misuse the system) driving Cadillacs helped to drum up support for welfare cutbacks. During the first Reagan administration, between 1981 and 1985, federal spending on welfare dropped 19 percent. With opponents socially constructing welfare recipients in a negative fashion, policymakers argued that public assistance contributed to multiple generations relying on cash assistance. They charged that AFDC eroded recipients’ work ethic, causing family breakups and discouraging fathers from providing for their families. During the 1996 welfare reform debate, politicians of varying perspectives echoed these sentiments.
On August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, also known as welfare reform. President Clinton’s electoral campaign was to “end welfare as we know it.” With the new legislation, no longer are poor families entitled to a federal safety net, as the program switched benefits from an entitlement to temporary assistance. Overall, this act saved $70 billion over the following 5 years. Welfare reform brought changes to the food stamps program and Supplemental Security Income and barred all legal immigrants from eligibility to receive federal means-tested programs until they became U.S. citizens.
Under welfare reform, AFDC no longer became a federal entitlement but a block grant, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Federal law limits eligibility to TANF to a lifetime limit of 5 years and bars cash assistance to unwed minor mothers or children born to mothers on welfare. Because of welfare reform, state and local officials are now accountable for meeting work participation rates and ensuring that recipients are in work activities within several years of their initial receipt of assistance. Federal rules limit to 12 months the amount of vocational education that can be used toward work requirements. TANF requires that recipients must work as soon as they are job ready or no later than 2 years after coming on assistance. Single parents must participate in work activities for at least 30 hours per week, and two-parent families must participate in work activities 35 or 55 hours a week, depending upon circumstances. Failure to participate in work requirements can result in a reduction or termination of benefits to the family. However, states cannot penalize single parents with a child under 6 for failing to meet work requirements if they cannot find adequate child care. The program requires that states must ensure that 50 percent of all families and 90 percent of two-parent families are participating in work activities. States may extend assistance beyond 60 months to not more than 20 percent of their caseload.
States may use their federal TANF funds for the following: (a) to provide assistance to families so children can be cared for at home, (b) to provide job training, (c) to encourage formation of two-parent families, and (d) to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Furthermore, TANF requirements include not only work but also paternity disclosure.
Challenges of Welfare Reform
Since the passage of federal welfare reform, the welfare rolls have dropped dramatically. The challenge of welfare reform now rests with the states, which focus on moving welfare recipients to work. The 60-month time limits in TANF have major implications for low-income U.S. families. Because the design of TANF is to move recipients from welfare to work creating self-sufficiency, those who face time limits without employment can encounter homelessness and other hardships. These time limits were put into effect so that recipients would not become dependent and would instead seek employment and become self-reliant. Despite the intent of welfare reform to move individuals off welfare, the Administration for Children and Families has documented that moving recipients from welfare to work also involves working with personal and family challenges of welfare recipients, such as low levels of social and human capital, low education attainment, few work skills, lack of work experience, poor access to transportation, health problems, drug dependence, major depression, incarceration, and experiences of perceived workplace discrimination.
Overall, welfare rolls declined 57 percent for families and 64 percent for individuals from 1996 to 2005. According to the Administration for Children and Families, the four barriers to employment are substance abuse problems, mental health problems, learning disabilities, and domestic violence situations. Studies reveal that one out of three people drawing welfare are unable to find sustainable jobs or make enough to leave welfare dependency. Studies reveal that average wages for former recipients are less than $8 an hour and only one in three had health insurance in 2002. By 2000, a number of poorer states extended the 5-year limit as people were unable to find work. During the recent economic downturn, rolls began to rise again. In addition, advocates point out that as many as two thirds of welfare-eligible women experience abuse from a partner during their lifetime.
Structural and institutional barriers, such as the lack of access to job training programs, long-term employment, health care benefits, quality child care, and transportation assistance, prevent self-sufficiency. Child care is the largest state expenditure after cash assistance. Because TANF and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act are subject to state budget crises, the funding of child care and transportation varies from state to state and budget to budget.
Studies reveal that most recipients are on welfare for less than 2 years and that 90 percent of TANF recipients are women with an average age of 31.1 years. The early success of TANF directly related to the booming economy of the Clinton era. More recent TANF changes include attempts to decrease spending on TANF through the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which requires states to engage more TANF cases in productive work activities leading to self-sufficiency.
Subsequent initiatives by the George W. Bush administration included the Healthy Marriages Initiative, which focused on early intervention, helping young adult couples establish stable and healthy relationships before the conception and birth of a child.
Critics of welfare reform point out that the conditions many women and families experience after exiting the welfare rolls are detrimental to their success and even survival—specifically, women’s vulnerability to low-wage, dead-end jobs, domestic violence, and poverty. They often continue to lack child care, health care, and other benefits most often missing among those in the low-wage labor market. Concerns also arise around domestic violence and welfare reform. Although TANF has measures for battered women (the Family Violence Option), advocates for victims of domestic violence suggest this policy has not been effectively implemented and does not address domestic violence. Overall, those who focus on getting individuals and their families off welfare rolls see TANF as a success. However, for those interested in the long-term success and mobility of those families, TANF has failed to pull many of them out of working poverty. Critics also point to TANF’s spotty record on child care, job training, and transportation.
Besides the reduction in case loads, supporters of the program also emphasize the slowing unwed birth rate, reduction in child poverty, and increased employment of young single mothers. Trends in public policy since the Reagan administration reflect legislation cutting back on public investments and the resorting to private and volunteer approaches to welfare. Welfare policy in the near future is likely to maintain the same course. Approaches to welfare under the George W. Bush administration were to increase work requirements. Further research needs to explore the institutional barriers that hinder low-income individuals from finding meaningful employment as well as a discussion on how to facilitate aiding hard-to-reach populations. In addition, more research needs to examine whether those who are working are able, or not able, to achieve economic self-sufficiency.
- Abramovitz, Mimi. 2000. Under Attack Fighting Back: Women and Welfare Reform from Colonial Times to the Present. New York Monthly Review Press.
- Gans, Herbert. 1995. The War against the Poor. New York: Basic Books.
- Katz, Michael. 1996. In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America. 10th anniv. ed. New York: Basic Books.
- Naples, Nancy. 1997. “The ‘New Consensus’ on the Gendered ‘Social Contract’: The 1987-1988 U.S. Congressional Hearings on Welfare Reform.” Signs 22(4):907-45.
- Piven, Frances Fox and Richard Cloward. 1993. Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare. New York: Vintage.
- Quadagno, Jill. 1994. The Color of Welfare. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Seccombe, Karen. 1999. “So You Think I Drive a Cadillac?” Welfare Recipients on the System and Its Reform. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
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