Welfare Reform: Progress, Pitfalls, and Potential

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Welfare Reform: Progress, Pitfalls, and Potential

February 10, 2004 3 min read
Robert Rector
Senior Research Fellow, Center for Health and Welfare Policy
Robert is a leading authority on poverty, welfare programs, and immigration in America.

The 1996 welfare reform legislation made remarkable headway in helping welfare dependents to move toward self-sufficiency. It dramatically reduced the caseload of dependents, reduced child poverty, and increased employment among single mothers. Yet, as a result of lax enforcement and efforts to undermine the principles and goals of reform, the full potential of this legislation has not been realized. To ensure that reform is sustained and strengthened, action must be taken to promote three elements that have provided a gateway from poverty and dependency: marriage, work, and teen abstinence.



The welfare reform legislation passed in 1996 engendered significant progress in addressing critical problems that three decades of a flawed welfare system had either left unaffected or exacerbated. This legislation had three general goals:

  1. To reduce dependence and increase employment;
  2. To reduce child poverty; and
  3. To reduce illegitimacy and strengthen marriage (More than 80 percent of long-term child poverty occurs among children reared in never-married or broken families; 75 percent of the $200 billion annual welfare expenditures to families with children goes to single-parent families).

Since the reform, great strides have been achieved:

  • The welfare caseload in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program has been cut in half.
  • Among disadvantaged single mothers who had the greatest tendency to become long-term welfare dependents, the employment rate has soared by 50 percent to 100 percent.

As employment sharply increased, the poverty rate of single mothers dropped by nearly a third and, in 2001, was at the lowest point in U.S. history. Today, 2.9 million fewer children live in poverty than in 1995.



Nevertheless, the potential impact of welfare reform has yet to be fully realized. Progress toward each of reform's goals has been thwarted-in some instances by lax enforcement and implementation and, in other cases, by initiatives that, in the guise of reform, undermine its purpose. For example:

  • More than half of the caseload of TANF (Temporary Assistance to Need Families) resides in states where recipients may routinely refuse to work or prepare for work and still receive the bulk of their benefits. More than 50 percent of TANF recipients are idle.
  • Out of the more than $100 billion in federal TANF funds disbursed over the past seven years, only .02 percent has been spent on promoting marriage.


In the ongoing debate about welfare re-authorization, policymakers who are authentically committed to reform seek to address these issues and to counter other measures that threaten to weaken or by-pass work requirements and limits on benefit receipt. Heritage Foundation analysts are working to equip these policymakers with the facts they need on issues critical to reform, with research that includes:

Prescriptions to Keep Reform Alive

To keep welfare reform viable and effective, action must be taken on three fronts:


Work: Currently, approximately half of the 2 million mothers on the TANF rolls are idle. We must encourage productive activity that leads to self-sufficiency, rather than destructive activity that leads to dependency.


To do this, it is not enough to simply increase required activity hours. Participation rates must be increased. The Senate should require that states have a minimum of 55 percent of adult-headed TANF households engaged in constructive activity by 2009.


Marriage: The poverty rate of children raised by never-married mothers is seven times higher than that of children raised in intact married families. President Bush has introduced a new program to implement welfare reform's original goal of strengthening marriage. Under the President's plan, the government would spend one cent to promote healthy marriage for every $7.00 spent subsidizing single parents. The President's healthy marriage initiative must be passed without being weakened or diluted.


Abstinence: A recent Zogby poll found that 79 percent of parents with children aged 17 or under want their children to be taught to abstain from sex until they are married or near marriage. Unfortunately, the government currently spends $4.50 on encouraging teens to use contraception for every $1.00 spent to promote teen abstinence. The current federal abstinence programs should be reauthorized without any change that would weaken or dilute the programs. No new "safe sex" funding should be authorized.


Robert E. Rector is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.


Robert Rector
Robert Rector

Senior Research Fellow, Center for Health and Welfare Policy