As many states face budget shortfalls, several states are
cutting their welfare programs during the trimming process.
California is contemplating cutting its entire welfare/cash
assistance program, while Arizona and Rhode Island have already
passed budget cuts to their programs.
Although the elimination of a state Temporary Assistance for
Needy Families (TANF) program would not have the disastrous effect
that some might expect--TANF cash benefits account for only 5
percent of total means-tested aid to poor families with
children--there are other less controversial ways for states to
save substantial funds within their welfare programs. Strengthening
work requirements, limiting benefits to non-citizens, and clamping
down on waste, fraud, and abuse within state welfare programs would
generate a healthy saving of taxpayer dollars.
History of Welfare Reform
It is important to understand the basic History and success of
welfare reform before states move to cut certain elements of the
Prior to the 1996 welfare reform, recipients spent an average of
13 years on the rolls. Roughly one child in seven was enrolled in
the program. Then in 1996, the welfare reform bill put in place
work requirements of 20-30 hours a week and a five-year time limit
on the receipt of benefits.
State welfare agencies were transformed overnight into job
placement centers. Social workers helped recipients find child
care, housing, transportation, or whatever other work support was
necessary to move people into jobs and self-sufficiency. Welfare
caseloads shrunk by more than half from 4.4 million to 1.7 million
families over a 10-year period--2.7 million fewer families
receiving a welfare check. As the welfare caseload fell, employment
of single mothers surged upward, and their poverty rate dropped
Good welfare-to-work programs actually save taxpayers money by
moving many people off the rolls and into employment. The 1996
reforms allow a state to keep excess federal funds if their
caseloads shrink, and those monies can be spent on a variety of
other related programs, thereby freeing up more state dollars for
The savings in federal TANF dollars to a state are fungible
enough to be used to pay for other services such as child care,
transportation for the poor, job training, vocational education,
marriage and fatherhood programming, and more. Services that states
fund with their own dollars could be paid for instead with excess
TANF dollars. Therefore, it makes little sense to eliminate the
welfare-to-work portion of a state's welfare budget. Instead,
states should strengthen welfare-to-work programs as a means of
saving billions of dollars.
Need for Renewed Reform
During the first five years after welfare reform, many state
welfare bureaucracies were effective in engaging able-bodied
welfare recipients in work-related activities, increasing
employment while decreasing caseloads, costs, and child
In the last five years, however, most state bureaucracies have
reverted to the pre-reform pattern of simply mailing checks to
recipients, rarely challenging those on the rolls to escape
dependence and seek employment.
States should take the following steps to revive their welfare
to work programs and reduce welfare costs:
1. Increase the Number of Welfare Recipients Participating in
Work Activities. According to the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services, in 2006 on average only 32 percent of the
able-bodied adult TANF caseload was working or preparing for
work. The percentage drops even further to 16
percent when child-only cases (cases in which the parent or
guardian are disregarded) are added back into the denominator.
States should aggressively apply work participation requirements
to all of its recipients through upfront job search,
obtaining a GED, getting practical hands-on experience, or, more
importantly, working in unsubsidized employment in the private
sector. States that implement serious work activity programs
achieve results in shrinking welfare caseloads, saving money, and
moving former recipients toward independence and
2. Eliminate Fraud and Abuse among So-Called Child-Only
Cases. Nationwide, 47 percent of TANF cases are "child-only"
cases, in which there is allegedly no parent in the household who
can be required to work or prepare for work; the TANF check is
therefore provided for the "child only."
Child-only welfare cases are rife with fraud and abuse. Less
than a quarter of child-only cases involve a parent who is actually
disabled and unable to work. In many cases an able-bodied parent
continues to reside with the child to benefit from the child-only
welfare check. Often, a single mother seeks to evade TANF work
rules and obligations by declaring that the child's grandmother or
aunt is the caregiver. Once the mother is no longer named as the
caregiver, she is exempt from all work rules. Since the aunt or
grandmother is not covered in the TANF payment, she is also exempt
from work rules.
Often the mother will continue to reside in the same home with
her child and the "caregiver" grandmother. In these circumstances,
child-only status is used as a ruse by the mother to evade her
obligation to work or prepare for work and to financially support
the child. As long as the parent continues to reside with a child
receiving a child-only check, the parent should be required to work
or prepare for work.
In other child-only cases, a single parent has placed the child
with a grandmother or other relative who resides in another
location. In such situations, the absent single parent should be
required to prepare for work or, if already working, to pay child
support to the government in recompense for the welfare benefits
going to the child. Enforcing this obligation would reduce burdens
on taxpayers and shrink the number of ostensibly child-only
3. Eliminate the Work Exemptions for Illegal Immigrants on
Welfare. A substantial portion of child-only cases involve
American-born children of illegal immigrants. Most states provide
TANF benefits for these children but rule the illegal immigrant
parents exempt from normal work requirements. The welfare system
thus discriminates against American citizens and in favor of
illegal immigrants by unequally applying the work requirement.
This abuse should be ended. When an illegal immigrant applies
for welfare aid for a child, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration
Service should be notified and deportation proceedings should be
commenced. If the child is given welfare, the illegal immigrant
parent should be subject to the same work rules as a citizen
Many illegal immigrant parents work off the books; they do not
tell the welfare office about their hidden earnings, as that would
limit the eligibility of their children for welfare. If the illegal
immigrant parents with hidden employment are required to make daily
trips to the welfare office to engage in formal job search and job
preparation activities, they are likely to simply take the child
4. Add Work Requirements to Separate State and Solely State
Funded Welfare Programs. TANF has a work requirement of 20-30
hours a week per able-bodied beneficiary. After the 1996 reform
became law, many states created their own taxpayer-financed
programs known as SSPs (Separate State Programs) and SSFs (Solely
It is commonly viewed that this was done in order to circumvent
the TANF work requirement. State legislatures should enact real
work requirements in these programs along the lines of the federal
requirements. Not only will this help shrink those caseloads and
move people into self-sufficiency, but it stands to save millions
of state budget dollars.
5. Institute Full Check Sanction Policies for Able-Bodied
Adults Who Fail to Participate in Work Activities. When a
recipient refuses to participate in the necessary job or job
advancement activity required, states have the ability under
federal law to sanction that recipient. Unfortunately, this policy
is not widely used by states. Many have weak versions of sanction
policies where only a small portion of the check is revoked or
delayed. However, states that have instituted strong sanction
policies have seen positive outcomes, including changes in
behavior, drops in caseloads, and increased participation rates.
6. Eliminate Welfare benefits for Non-Citizens.
Productive activity is the key to assimilation of legal aliens to
the U.S., and the availability of welfare benefits has greatly
complicated this process.
Federal welfare law allows states to provide TANF benefits to
legal aliens after they have been in the U.S. for at least five
years or to those who were already in the country at the date of
enactment of the law (August 22, 1996). The Congressional Research
Service notes that 34 states are providing checks to legal aliens
who have been in the country at least five years. Further, 26
states are using their own state dollars and some federal funds to
give welfare checks to legal aliens who were in the U.S. prior to
the five-year ban or who exceeded the five-year time limit.
Providing welfare checks to non-citizens encourages them to
assimilate to a culture of poverty rather than a path of upward
Good on Two Counts
Enhancing work requirements, eliminating fraud and abuse,
eliminating welfare benefits for non-citizens, and stopping the
preferential treatment of illegal immigrant parents can both save
states billions of dollars on their balance sheets and help people
move from welfare to self sufficiency.
Katherine Bradley is Visiting Fellow
in the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil
Society and Robert Rector is Senior Research Fellow in the
Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation.
Cynthia Hubert, "California Contemplates
Ultimate Reform--No Welfare," Sacramento Bee, June 4, 2009,
story/69467.html (June 19, 2009); Nicholas Johnson, Phil
Oliff, and Jeremy Koulish, "An Update on State Budget Cuts: At
Least 36 States Have Imposed Cuts That Hurt Vulnerable Residents,
but the Federal Economic Recovery Package Is Reducing the Harm,"
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, May 13, 2009.
Cases that count toward meeting the work
participation rate must work a minimum of 20-30 hours per week.
Therefore, it can be assumed that a percentage of the caseload is
performing some amount of work that is not counted in the overall
rate because of falling short of the requirement.
Ellen Wasem, "Noncitizen Eligibility for Federal Public Assistance:
Policy Overview and Trends," Congressional Research Service,
January 19, 2007.