Twenty years ago, “welfare as we knew it” died. Under the bipartisan Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, the Clinton administration began an agenda of “personal responsibility,” aimed at pushing welfare recipients into self-sufficient nuclear families. But the old welfare system has ended at a price: new research on the cost of reform shows that, while many have been ripped away from the lifeline of government support, nothing is there to catch them as they fall to unprecedented depths.
To “incentivize” work, welfare reform replaced the open-ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with time-limited Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which combined work and training programs with penalties tied to bureaucratic requirements. The concept seemed to work at first: welfare rolls dropped sharply and many entered the workforce, often under mandatory regulations. But those who remained poor and jobless became increasingly vulnerable, and data suggests that pushing them off benefits ultimately pushed them toward earlier death.
A recent public health study tests the hypothesis that welfare can be shut off like a leaky faucet and the poor will suddenly become motivated toward self-sufficiency. For those budgetary savings, it seems that people might pay with their lives.
Researchers found that cutting off support leaves lasting scars on the most vulnerable segment of the TANF population—the neediest families: “TANF enrollees with pre-school aged children or larger families are both more likely to be food insecure and, at least among those required to enter the workforce quickly, in poorer mental health.” The projections show that despite “very large direct monetary savings…for both individuals and for the US government, TANF may also harm women who could not subsequently work (whether due to young children at home, large family sizes, mental illness, and/or physical illness). Some may have ended up relying on weak financial networks or become homeless.”
Columbia University researcher Peter Muennig tells The Nation via e-mail that reform was “successful” in that many “able-bodied” people eventually started working, but “What wasn’t considered, I think, is that not everyone can move into the job market.”
While paltry aid was maintained for the “deserving” working poor, the TANF “leavers” who stayed jobless—often losing benefits through penalties or time limits—continued to suffer. Their chronic poverty fed into intensifying inequality during the Great Recession. As unemployment soared, the downsized welfare system became more overstretched. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: “Under the TANF structure, many states’ TANF programs have responded inadequately—or not at all—to the large rise in unemployment during this very deep recession, leaving large numbers of families in severe hardship.”