I’ll always remember the day President Clinton signed Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), or welfare reform, into law. It was August 1996, and I was reading the morning paper in Barstow, California, completing the last leg of a cross-country road trip I’d taken with my daughter to celebrate my finishing school. Having just earned my bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, I would finally earn enough to get my family off welfare—and out of poverty—for good. As I read the news that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act had become law, I hung my head and cried. I felt like I’d crossed a bridge just as it collapsed behind me, and worried what would become of mothers who remained trapped on the other side.
Since 1996, politicians have bragged about passing welfare reform. Even House Speaker John Boehner recently praised TANF as a bipartisan success. But successful at what? If kicking low-income children and their families off welfare is the measure, then TANF was a huge success. States were given bonuses for reducing their caseloads rather than reducing poverty. As long as families were off the rolls, it didn’t matter how or why. Studies show that parents were ten times more likely to get cut off welfare because of punitive sanctions than because they got jobs paying enough to “income off.” In many states, “full family” sanctions cut low-income children off welfare along with their parents. Under the “work first” mantra, TANF caseloads plummeted by almost 70 percent, as nearly 9 million low-income parents and children were purged from the national welfare rolls by 2008. Given the four goals of TANF—promoting low-wage work, encouraging marriage, reducing caseloads and curtailing out-of-wedlock births—these outcomes are no surprise. But if the measure of success is poverty reduction, TANF has failed.
To start, its restrictions on postsecondary education and training—the most effective pathway out of poverty for parents on welfare—make earning a bachelor’s degree nearly impossible. Even earning an associate degree is difficult. “Any job is a good job” was the slogan emblazoned on the walls of county welfare agencies across the country, as tens of thousands of low-income mothers were made to quit college to do up to thirty-five hours per week of unpaid “workfare”: sweeping streets, picking up trash in parks and cleaning public restrooms in exchange for benefits as low as $240 a month.
Contrary to “welfare queen” stereotypes, like most welfare mothers, I worked first. Work wasn’t the problem; it was the nature of the work—low-wage, dead-end jobs with no benefits and little chance for advancement—that kept families like mine on the welfare rolls. Investing in my education enabled me to break that cycle and earn a solid upper-middle-class income. I now pay three times more in taxes than I used to earn working full time in a low-wage, dead-end job.
This trajectory is what motivated mothers like Rya Frontera and Melissa Johnson to pursue nursing degrees, despite being sanctioned: having their families’ cash grants cut off and losing childcare and transportation assistance when they refused to quit school. Whereas mothers in “work first” programs earn less than $9,000 a year, after completing her BS in nursing Melissa graduated off welfare to a career-path job as a registered nurse making $90,000 a year. Similarly, Rya is now a full-time nurse with full benefits working for Kaiser. Not only are they off welfare permanently; both women are filling a crucial labor market need, as our nation faces a nursing shortage with no end in sight. Isn’t that how welfare should work?