Revisiting Welfare Reform

Editorial America Magazine

Twenty years ago President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, better known as welfare reform. Among other provisions, the law required that able-bodied adults go to work within two years of receiving assistance and imposed a lifetime limit of five years of welfare benefits. The American Catholic bishops called the law “deeply flawed” and harmful to “hungry children.” At the time we noted the “laudable goal of moving people from demeaning dependency to dignifying work” but concluded, “this is not welfare reform but a redistribution of income—from the stigmatized poor to the fortunate classes” (“The ‘Other’ America Revisited,” Editorial, 8/31/1996).

The law has had some limited success in moving people into the workforce. The program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, covers far fewer households than its predecessor (Aid to Families With Dependent Children), but that does not necessarily mean that fewer families need help. According to recent research by two scholars, Kathryn Edin and Luke Schaefer, the number of families living on $2 or less a day per person more than doubled between the enactment of welfare reform and 2013, to 1.6 million households. The number of children living in these extreme-poverty households also doubled, to 2.8 million. By 2013, only 26 percent of families in poverty were receiving welfare assistance, down from 68 percent in 1996.

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