The massive national welfare system is plagued with abuse and administrative issues, but there is still hope for lawmakers serious about reform, according to a report Wednesday.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, is urging lawmakers to consider several key policy changes to fix the welfare system. In their report, “Setting Priorities for Welfare Reform,” poverty experts Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield argue lawmakers should enact policies that put goals on the programs, limit access to the most needy and give states more control.
“The last substantial reform of welfare, enacted in 1996, transformed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program into the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program,” the report detailed. “Mandatory federal work requirements for recipients were at the heart of the change, which led to significant decreases in the program’s rolls, increased work among former recipients, and historic reductions in child poverty.”
The Republican majority in Congress has been looking into welfare reform as a means of offsetting discretionary spending. Welfare is an ever expanding system that covers a significant portion of the overall federal budget. There have been no substantial reforms taken, but a recent budget proposal has hinted towards welfare being among a list of top priorities.
“Although the welfare reform of the 1990s was successful and popular and initially successful, it was actually quite limited,” the report continued. “Of 80 welfare programs, only TANF was reformed, and even in TANF, the vigor of reform has nearly disappeared.”
The welfare system consists of many different federal and local programs designed to help impoverished people. Most programs are means-tested, meaning they require able-bodied adults without children to work or be enrolled in a jobs program. A lot of work requirements were waved in response to the recent recession and not all programs have strict guidelines. The report suggests means-tested barriers should be expanded, and also recommends the programs set clear goals to help get people out of poverty.
“The goals should be to increase self-sufficiency,” the report noted. “Welfare dependence pushes individuals to the margins of society; it impedes the upward mobility of children. Welfare also undermines personal psychological well-being. Well-being includes happiness, self-respect, competence, accomplishment, a sense your life is meaningful and valued by others.”
While the welfare program should be designed to get people out of poverty, it should also put limits on itself. The report recommends annual expenditures into welfare should be capped to prevent the programs from expanding uncontrollably, and the federal government should also start reducing its own authority so states can do more on the local level.
“More than 75 percent of total government spending on means-tested welfare comes from the federal government,” the report added. “Each state should be allowed to determine how and to what extent it will replace federal housing programs with alternative programs designed and funded by state and local authorities.”
The report also advocates for policies that encourage social institutions like marriage. It argues marriage and family units can be an effective way to reduce the risk of poverty among children. Essentially, when two adults are working to support a family instead of one, it increases the chances of that family avoiding or escaping poverty. Tax reform as well could help low-income individuals by allowing them to keep more of what they earn.
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