Yesterday was the 15th anniversary of welfare reform. Fifteen years ago, on August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act which instituted Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). This cash assistance program was designed to encourage employment and self-sufficiency by requiring program participants to work, placing time limitations on benefits, encouraging marriage and discouraging out-of-wedlock births, and enforcing child support.
We at the Alliance know that TANF is an important program to prevent homelessness. Cash assistance, food stamps, Medicaid – all the programs that keep poor families afloat are the same programs that keep families stably housed. Without that limited assistance, families could be at real risk for experiencing homelessness.
So how’s the program been working? Well, there’s been no shortage of commentary this week.
Experts at the Brookings Institution suggest that welfare reform has succeeded in reducing poverty despite the sting of the recent recession. Others at the Center for American Progress note how TANF has failed to keep up with rising need among lower-income and poor families. Noted scholar Barbara Ehrenreich and RNC Chairman Michael Steele debated the finer points of welfare reform earlier this week on National Public Radio.
For our part, we were particularly interested in the research of the Urban Institute. They released a publication earlier entitled “What Role is Welfare Playing in this Period of High Unemployment?” (We wrote about this report earlier on the blog, here. ) Similarly, experts at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities released information about how “TANF’s inadequate response to recession shows weakness of block grant structure.”
Both the Urban Institution and CBPP suggest that the marked reductions in the number of people receiving TANF benefits and TANF expenditures doesn’t mean the poor familiar are faring any better than they did 15 years ago. To the contrary, publications from both institutions show that, even amidst the persistent recession, TANF rolls have hardly kept up with the rates of unemployment, suggesting that many of the poorest families are suffering through the recession without any assistance. (Ezra Klein observed the same on his blog yesterday. )
While some may cringe at the idea of providing limited assistance to the very poorest people and families, the investment into poverty programs is an important one to make. If we can effectively and efficiently provide enough aid to prevent homelessness and encourage self-sufficiency, we can ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to build a strong, safe future for themselves and their families.