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August 22 Marks 15th Anniversary of Successful 1996 Welfare Reform Law

August 21, 2011
August 22 marks the 15th anniversary of the successful 1996 welfare reform law, passed by a Republican Congress and ultimately signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton on August 22, 1996 (after he vetoed two prior versions).  The law created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which replaced the prior welfare program.  As reflected in the chart below, through December 2010 (the most recent data available) welfare caseloads have dropped by an unprecedented 57 percent nationwide since enactment of this law: 

In noting the anniversary of welfare reform, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI), one of the authors of the bipartisan 1996 law, stated: “Welfare reform has worked to reduce dependence by promoting work, as intended.  But the job is not finished.  Not only are more reforms needed to ensure that all families on welfare can and do prepare for work, but other programs can and should be reformed to follow suit.  Welfare reform proved that low-income families want to work and support themselves.  We ought to build on those successes by taking steps to ensure that government programs support and not undermine that enduring American work ethic.” 
Despite progress since 1996, welfare reform is not complete. Welfare reform could be strengthened to help more low-income families support themselves in the years ahead.  For example, a recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 
report found that less than one third of adults on welfare who are expected to work or participate in training or other job preparation activities actually did so.  Even more troubling, of the subset of adults on welfare expected to work, more than half (52 percent) participated in no hours of work or job preparation activities at all.  The TANF program is currently authorized through September 30, 2011, and President Obama has called for a straight one-year extension of current program rules. 
Human Resources Subcommittee Chairman Geoff Davis (R-KY) stated: “TANF is designed to help low-income adults prepare for, find, and stay in jobs instead of spending year after year on welfare. It has achieved noteworthy progress over the past 15 years in terms of promoting work and earnings and reducing dependence and poverty.  But despite that progress, today less than a third of families actually satisfy their work requirement and over half perform no hours of work or job preparation.  We can and must do better than that.  We need to continue working to ensure that States are taking the necessary steps to help TANF families work and move up the economic ladder, as the 1996 welfare reform intended.”
Other Major Accomplishments of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law Include:

  • Child poverty in female-headed households, the largest category of households on welfare, is down 10 percent through 2009, despite the deep recession.
  • The employment rate of all single mothers in 2010 remained higher than in 1996, despite an unemployment rate almost double the 1996 level.