As the 20th anniversary of welfare reform approaches, the Ways and Means Committee is taking a look back so we can apply the same successful lessons to help more low-income Americans escape poverty and climb the economic ladder.
As we highlighted yesterday, it was clear by the 1990s that there was a growing need to reform the nation’s major cash welfare program. Even though more and more welfare checks were going out, the program was doing little to help single parents escape poverty for the long term. For many, welfare became a trap that ensnared them — and too often their own children when they became adults — in poverty and despair.
Welfare reform in 1996 flipped the script, focusing on moving families off of welfare dependence and into the workforce. That was the premise of the program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, which established work (or work preparation) requirements for states and individuals.
Since TANF was established:
- Employment rates of single mothers with children increased by 15 percent through 2007 compared with 1995. Even though their work rates declined during the most recent recession, they have risen again since 2011 and remain 10 percent higher.
- Child poverty declined dramatically as more people went to work and earnings increased. Poverty among African American households with children reached record lows.
- Poverty among female-headed households with children remains lower today than before the 1996 reforms — despite two intervening recessions.
- The number of families receiving cash assistance from the TANF program fell by more than 60 percent since 1996.
As the American Enterprise Institute’s poverty expert Robert Doar wrote:
“Based on 20 years of program performance, we can say that TANF has been a success. In the checkered history of US social policy, TANF is a bright spot: Few programs have generated such strong gains in poverty reduction and employment … Policymakers should not forget that the primary reason the program has been successful is its work-first approach.”
There is no question TANF has done what it was supposed to do: improve the lives of single parents and their children. How do we apply these lessons to the more-than-80 federal anti-poverty programs to help more low-income Americans move up the economic ladder for the long term? Check back tomorrow to learn more.
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