EXCLUSIVE: Here’s What We’ve Learned From 20 Years Of Welfare Reform


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Thomas Phippen Associate Editor
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Everyone who receives welfare assistance from the U.S. government today is required to prove they are working, actively trying to enter the job market, or have a valid reason for not working. That was not the case 20 years ago.

Monday marks the 20th anniversary of landmark legislation that reshaped how America provided welfare. Critics of the welfare reform package say the work requirements limit the impact welfare has upon lives of low income Americans.

But in 1996, welfare had gotten so out of hand, everyone agreed something had to be done. “This was also the era when Bill Clinton had campaigned on ending poverty as we know it,” Jim Talent, who served as representative for Missouri in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

“When the president said we needed to end welfare as we know it, nobody stood up to say we should keep welfare as it was.”

“The way most Americans have gotten out of poverty is through work and marriage, so the idea was to treat work as something that was good and powerful in their lives,” Talent, who proposed the work requirements to the welfare bill in the House, said.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 addressed the biggest problems. In particular, it reformed cash welfare payments and gave each states block grants to use as they saw fit, with some stipulations.

Within just a few years of the legislation, the country was going in the right direction, according to Talent. “The caseloads dropped by about a half, at the same time as poverty was going down. Poverty among americans was reduced to it’s lowest level in history,” Talent said.

The bill instituted work requirements for most kinds of assistance, including the food stamps program, which is now also called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Critics say the program was gutted by the 1996 bill. “The value of the basic SNAP benefit hasn’t fully recovered and today remains lower than it would have been without the 1996 law,” Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities wrote last week.

Robert Doar, who was commissioner of New York City’s Human Resources Administration from 2007 to 2014, spoke to TheDCNF about how the work requirements played out in New York.

As soon as someone applies for cash welfare or other assistance, they’re asked to find a job, Doar says. “After they are determined eligible and receive a grant, often what’s happening is a constant emphasis on getting work or doing some activity that would lead to getting a job,” Doar said.

The work requirements have enabled the focus to shift from measuring success by how many people are receiving welfare to how many people are entering the workforce. “Lots and lots of people who come in and see how cash welfare is going to work, they say ‘I don’t need this, I’ll just go get a job. if I’m going to have to verify those kind of activities, I know how to work, I might as well get work myself,'” Doar said.

But the federal government’s metrics make a big difference on what local aid workers do. “As operator of a program that’s federally funded, we’re  were very responsive to what is important to them,” Doar said. “Going back into the [George W.] Bush administration, we were told is that what matters is signing people up.”

Following the last recession in 2008, President Barack Obama introduced waivers for the work requirements in the SNAP program. States were allowed to give food assistance to able-bodied, childless adults without the work requirements. Most states are just beginning to reinstate those requirements. (RELATED: 7 States Are Ready To Cut Special Post-Recession Food Stamp Program)

Another effect of the welfare reform legislation is the change in how people think about work requirements. A study from the American Enterprise Institute and the LA Times found that Americans strongly support “workfare,” or welfare in exchange for meaningful work. Around 87 percent of those surveyed in 2016 said they supported work requirements, compared to only 51 percent in a similar survey AEI and the LA Times conducted in 1985. (RELATED: Americans’ Views On Welfare Have Changed In 20 Years, Here’s How)

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