The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (welfare reform) was a monumental event for the American government. At the signing of the bill on August 23, 1996, then President Clinton stated "Today, we are ending welfare as we know it." His signing of the bill helped to seal his reelection. But what is the reality 17 years later?
The CATO Institute’s Michael Tanner was one of the leading thinkers behind the act in 1996. When I stated that to him he downplayed his own role, he replied that “We have to thank Robert Rector of Heritage Foundation and Charles Murray.” In 1995, Tanner co-authored a groundbreaking study entitled The Work vs. Welfare Trade-off. The research found in that study helped lead to the 1996 Act which Tanner declared “was a huge step forward.”
Tanner decided it was time to take another comprehensive look at welfare as we know it. When asked why now it was time to do a new study, Tanner stated “There have frankly been a lot of requests and there have been a lot of changes to the programs.”
The welfare reform dealt with only four welfare programs. The two main ones were Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Food Stamps. In the ensuing period those two programs have been renamed in the governments’ desire to be more sensitive. AFDC has become TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and Food Stamps is now SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
Tanner stated that was a large problem with the bill. It did not address enough of the “welfare state” to make effective changes. There are currently 126 federal anti-poverty programs. 72 of those programs are either cash assistance or in-kind programs. They operate through nine different cabinet departments and four independent agencies. One would think with all these poverty programs the poverty rate would go down. Though the poverty rate has fluctuated a couple percent, it is currently at 15% which it has been for two years running.
Tanner outlined for me the criteria he used for the current study which he states were the same criteria used in 1995 to assure the studies were comparative. The model is based on a single mother with two children. In the model, in addition to TANF they receive benefits from the following programs: Food Stamps, Medicaid, WIC (Women, Infants and Children – food assistance), Utility Assistance, Public Housing (Section 8) and the Free Commodities Program (Cheese and Milk).