Five years ago last month, President Bill Clinton
signed legislation overhauling part of the nation's welfare system.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act
of 1996 (P.L. 104-193) replaced the failed social program known as
Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with a new program
called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The reform
legislation had three goals: 1) to reduce welfare dependence and
increase employment; 2) to reduce child poverty; and 3) to reduce
illegitimacy and strengthen marriage.
the time of its enactment, liberal groups passionately denounced
the welfare reform legislation, predicting that it would result in
substantial increases in poverty, hunger, and other social ills.
Contrary to these alarming forecasts, welfare reform has been
effective in meeting each of its goals.
- Poverty has
dropped substantially. Although liberals predicted that
welfare reform would push an additional 2.6 million persons into
poverty, there are actually 4.2 million fewer people living in
poverty today than there were in 1996, according to the most common
Census Bureau figures.
- Some 2.3 million
fewer children live in poverty today than in 1996.
- Decreases in poverty
have been greatest among black children. In fact, today the
poverty rate for black children has fallen to the lowest point in
U.S. history. There are 1.1 million fewer black children in poverty
today than there were in the mid-1990s.
- The poverty rate
of single mothers is at the lowest point in U.S. history,
having fallen substantially since the onset of welfare reform.
figures exaggerate the poverty rate. Poverty rates are
even lower when the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and non-cash
welfare benefits, such as Food Stamps and public housing, are
counted as income in determining poverty. This more accurate
assessment shows that the overall poverty rate in 1999 was 8.8
percent, down from 10.2 percent in 1996.
- Hunger among
children has been almost cut in half. According to the
U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are nearly 2 million fewer
hungry children today than at the time welfare reform was
- The AFDC/TANF
caseload has been cut nearly in half. The decreases in
welfare have been greatest among disadvantaged groups with the
greatest propensity for long-term intergenerational dependence,
e.g., younger never-married mothers with young children.
- Employment of
single mothers has increased greatly. The largest
increases in employment have been among the most disadvantaged
mothers with the greatest barriers to obtaining work. Employment of
young single mothers (age 18 to 24) has nearly doubled. Employment
of single mothers who are high-school drop-outs has risen by
- The explosive
growth of out-of-wedlock childbearing has come to a virtual
halt. Since the beginning of the War on Poverty, the share
of births that are outside marriage had increased relentlessly at
nearly one percentage point per year. Overall, the percentage of
births that were out-of-wedlock rose from 7.7 in 1965 to an
astonishing 32.6 percent in 1994. However, since welfare reform the
growth in illegitimacy has slowed to a near halt. The
out-of-wedlock birth rate has remained almost flat for the past
five years, and among blacks it has actually dropped.
- Marriage has been
strengthened. The share of children living in
single-mother families has fallen, and the share living in
married-couple families has increased, especially among black
incorrectly attribute these positive trends to the strong economy
in the late 1990s. Although a strong economy contributed to some of
these trends, most of the positive changes greatly exceed shifts
that occurred during prior economic expansions. The difference is
due to welfare reform. A recent analysis by former Director of the
Congressional Budget Office Dr. June O'Neill finds that welfare
reform has been responsible for three-quarters of the increase in
employment of single mothers and three-quarters of the drop in
welfare caseload. By contrast, good economic conditions were
responsible for only one-quarter of the changes in these variables.
The increase in employment of single mothers, in turn, is a major
factor behind the drop in child poverty.
The Future of
Reform. Notwithstanding this record of accomplishment, far
more needs to be done. When TANF is reauthorized next year, federal
work requirements should be strengthened to ensure that all
able-bodied parents engage in supervised job search, community
service work, or skills training as a condition of receiving aid.
Even more important, Congress must recognize that the most
effective way to reduce child poverty and increase child well-being
is to increase the number of stable, productive marriages. In
reauthorizing TANF, Congress must greatly strengthen the
pro-marriage aspects of welfare reform.
1996 TANF law established the formal goals of reducing
out-of-wedlock childbearing and increasing marriage, but despite
nearly $100 billion in TANF spending over the past five years, the
states have spent virtually nothing on specific pro-marriage
programs. The slowdown in the growth of illegitimacy and the
increases in marriage, noted above, have occurred as the incidental
by-product of work-related reforms and not as the result of
positive pro-marriage initiatives.
neglect of marriage by state welfare bureaucracies is scandalous
and deeply injurious to the well-being of children. Current welfare
policy sharply penalizes marriage between low-income men and women.
In future years, welfare's disincentives to marriage should be
significantly reduced. In addition, 5 percent to 10 percent of
future federal TANF funds should be earmarked for pro-marriage
Robert Rector is Senior Research
Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies, and Patrick F.
Fagan is William H.G. Fitzgerald Senior Fellow in Family and
Cultural Issues, at The Heritage Foundation.