Twenty years ago President Clinton signed a law creating Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), better known as sweeping welfare reform grounded in work requirements.
In 1996, 531,000 adults and children collected cash payments. Today the program enrolls just 167,018. That’s proof work is our most powerful anti-poverty tool.
Both poor and non-poor Americans agree that welfare programs should be linked with work requirements. According to a recent survey from AEI:
Large majorities (81 percent of those in poverty and 91 percent of the non poor) favor a work requirement in return for welfare benefits.
Unfortunately, President Obama gave states the option to downplay work requirements in 2012. To its credit, Pennsylvania, where the Commonwealth Foundation focuses our work, took the opposite approach and enacted a requirement that participants apply for three jobs each week to maintain benefits.
There is much room for improvement when it comes to the vast alphabet-soup of welfare programs, but the shift to work requirements was a dramatic step forward. Scott Winship from the Manhattan Institute puts it this way:
The question is what would have happened in the absence of the welfare reform that we actually implemented . . . Absent welfare reform, would single mothers have increased their employment rates and earnings? . . . policymakers should reject the increasingly conventional view that extreme poverty has dramatically increased and the view that welfare reform did more harm than good.
While work requirements have been a success for TANF, other major safety-net programs have dramatically expanded since 1996. Medicaid serves one in five Pennsylvanians, up from 12 percent in 2003 (the earliest data available). Food Stamps serve about 14 percent of Pennsylvanians compared to six percent in 2003.
Yet Pennsylvania is making progress. Last year, the state took another small step in the right direction by changing the structure of childcare subsidies. Now, families will gradually be responsible for higher co-pays as their earnings rise, instead of the subsidy cliff that could cause a co-pay to jump by $6,000 for earning $1 more.
Welfare reform showed government that a job is the greatest anti-poverty tool at one’s disposal, and we should be quick to apply that principle to every welfare program.