By Vijay Menon
November 27, 2018
The program at the heart of the 1996 welfare reform will expire in two weeks unless Congress acts. Lawmakers should advance the principles that led to its success and pass meaningful new reform to help more people get back to work. Signed into law by Bill Clinton, the 1996 welfare reform abolished failed programs and replaced them with temporary assistance for needy families. At the core of that program is a requirement that a portion of able bodied recipients of temporary assistance for needy families engage in “work activities” for 20 hours to 30 hours every week.
These work activities of the program are defined broadly. They include unsubsidized employment, subsidized employment, on the job training, community service work, job search or job readiness training, and up to 12 months of vocational education. Also considered work activities are the pursuit of high school or general education development on for recipients under age 20, and high school or general education development for those age 20 and over, if combined with other listed activities.
This provision formed the foundation of the success of the 1996 welfare reform. Poverty rates for children, especially black children, fell to record lows, while welfare rolls dropped by 50 percent. These results have persevered. The main group affected was households with single parents. The accurate data based on government expenditures show that today, the poverty rate among this group is now half what it was before the reform, having decreased from 30 percent to 15 percent.
Welfare reform based on work requirements has been very effective. The government should build on it, and the climate for change is favorable. Welfare reform based on work requirements has broad support among the public, with more than 90 percent of Americans in agreement that able bodied adults who receive means tested government benefits should be required to work or prepare for jobs in exchange for those benefits.
Despite enjoying overwhelming public support and demonstrated success, the policies behind it are absent from nearly all means tested welfare programs. Even temporary assistance for needy families falls short, as states are required to engage only 50 percent of their able bodied temporary assistance for needy families caseload with the work requirements. As a result, nearly half of able bodied recipients of temporary assistance for needy families in a typical state are idle.
Reform of temporary assistance for needy families should strengthen the existing work provisions of the program by requiring nearly all able bodied adults to perform at least some sort of work activities. The House Ways and Means Committee has developed legislation guided by this principle. Congress would be wise to use that as the framework for action this year rather than punting on important reforms by just extending current law.
Reform of temporary assistance for needy families is especially crucial in our vibrant economy today, where employers are posting more jobs openings than there are people looking for jobs. Reform of temporary assistance for needy families now would help get more people who can work back to work, and can achieve further reductions in poverty.