In 1996, Aid to Families With Dependent Children—that is, welfare as we knew it—ended. The Republican Party, which had dominated the federal government since the Reagan Revolution, had had welfare in its sights ever since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society expanded antipoverty programs. Liberals and progressives labeled welfare reform one of the worst things President Bill Clinton did, and rightly blamed it for the increase in child poverty that followed. For the right, though, shrinking welfare was part of a larger effort to decrease the size of government and appeal to working-class whites who had come to believe—erroneously—that AFDC largely benefited urban black recipients who didn’t want to work. Antipoverty advocates on the right argued that work was a better way out of poverty, and in the booming 1990s, this was partly true.
Welfare before reform, it’s worth remembering, was an old-fashioned program, established when men were expected to earn wages and women to care for the children. In the early 1900s, progressive reformers in Illinois and a few other states started some of America’s first cash-payment programs for poor widows, who, if they worked, were often deemed unfit mothers and had their children taken away. These programs were nationalized during the Great Depression, and the assumptions underpinning them—that women should be caretakers and men breadwinners—remained in place. Thus, by the 1990s, it wasn’t just conservatives who thought the program needed an overhaul. In limiting women’s employment potential and ignoring the nonmonetary contributions a father could make to his children’s well-being, welfare butted against the widespread societal shifts the second-wave feminist movement brought about. Prominent feminists, many of them white, were divided on how to address the needs of the poorest women, who were often of color. But almost everyone on the right and left alike agreed that AFDC’s payments were too low, locking mothers and their children into a cycle of intergenerational poverty and keeping recipients out of the workforce.
The push for reform culminated in Clinton signing the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, a law that celebrated its 20th anniversary this summer. In its earliest conceptions, the program it created, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), was meant to better connect women to educational opportunities and jobs that would enable them to earn more money than they’d ever receive from entitlement programs. “The best antipoverty program is still a job,” Clinton said when he signed the bill into law. But the biggest changes the act introduced were not the work requirements. For the first time, recipients faced a five-year lifetime limit on receiving benefits; in addition, the federal government gave states wide leeway with welfare funds, allowing them to be diverted to non-cash-payment programs. The intent was to allow states to fund workforce training, higher education, affordable child care, and other supports that would help women find employment. But in reality, there were almost no standards regarding what states could do—as president, George W. Bush allowed these funds to be used for classes that urged women to get married. Most significant, though, was that the dollar amount given to the states by the federal government, and the amount states were required to contribute themselves, was set at 1996 funding levels, with no mechanism for increasing it. That meant states could run out of money and refuse aid to qualifying families simply because they no longer had the funds. It also meant the cash amounts given to each individual family were eroded by inflation. In July 2015, the highest average cash payment for a single parent with three children was only about $704 a month in California. In two states, Mississippi and Tennessee, benefits are less than $2 per person per day, and in 27 more states the program provides less than $5 per person per day.