The “success” of the 1996 “welfare reform” pact between President Clinton and congressional conservatives is an hardy piece of conventional wisdom that you will hear repeated, and usually unchallenged, in the rare times that poverty comes up in the political discourse. The limits on cash benefits and the work requirements are frequently Exhibit A in the conservative case for further dismantling of economic supports for low-income people.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed from a Brookings scholar and a Yale professor, bluntly headlined, “Welfare reform worked.”
But today’s “This Week in Poverty” column in The Nation tells a different story.
A stunning report released by the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center reveals that the number of US households living on less than $2 per person per day—a standard used by the World Bank to measure poverty in developing nations—rose by 130 percent between 1996 and 2011, from 636,000 to 1.46 million. The number of children living in these extreme conditions also doubled, from 1.4 million to 2.8 million.
The reason? In short: welfare reform, 1996—still touted by both parties as a smashing success.
The report concludes that the growth in extreme poverty “has been concentrated among those groups that were most affected by the 1996 welfare reform.” The law created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which had guaranteed cash assistance to eligible families since 1935. Prior to welfare reform, 68 of every 100 poor families with children received cash assistance through AFDC. By 2010, just 27 of every 100 poor families received TANF assistance.
The availability of the “food stamp” program—now known as SNAP, or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program—softens the blow of this extreme poverty, but even when SNAP benefits are counted, there has been a nearly 67 percent increase in the number of households living on less than $2 a day.
“Despite the presence of a substantial in-kind safety net, a significant number of households with children continue to slip through the cracks,” the report said. “And it is unclear how households with no cash income—either from work, government programs, assets, friends, family members, or informal sources—are getting by even if they do manage to claim some form of in-kind benefit.”
The report closes by saying that “it would be wrong to conclude that the U.S. safety net is strong, or even adequate, when one in five poor households with children are living without meaningful cash income.”
Greg Kaufmann, who writes This Week in Poverty and who I interviewed recently, also chronicles some particularly frightening examples of states where things could get even worse for low-income people because of conservative ideological extremism. For example, Alabama is considering getting out of the TANF program altogether, denying itself $141 million in federal funding, because it does not want to comply with federal rules that the state spend its own tax dollars on the program.
Progressives are fighting with everything we have to create an economy in which self-reliance is a real option, not a right-wing talking point used to heckle those entrapped by no fault of their own in a dysfunctional economy. Welfare reform initially looked successful because of the rising economy of the late 1990s. As Kaufmann reports today, the reality of welfare reform looks more like this:
Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services in Appalachian Ohio, where he has been doing this work since 1973, told me that the state has cracked down on people who fail to meet their thirty-hour weekly work requirement “and in the last six months or so they’ve driven at least 30,000 people off of assistance. The welfare caseload in Ohio is dropping rapidly. ”
He’s traveled throughout the county of late to see how conditions are changing.
“There’s a growing number of families out there—through the combination of time limits and sanctions—who have no cash whatsoever, they’re just surviving on food stamps,” he said. “The housing conditions—people are doubling, tripling up even in little trailers. These kids are hungry, they’re sleeping in chairs, or makeshift beds, crammed together. They can’t afford transportation—they’re stuck out in these communities with no way to go anywhere or do anything.”
Let’s stop calling this “success.”