Commentary

Heritage Foundation: Welfare Reform is Back

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By Rachel Sheffield
Heritage Foundation

Last summer, the Obama Administration gutted the successful 1996 welfare reform law by offering to waive its work requirements. Now the debate is back, as several Members of Congress are trying to restore the reforms that helped so many out of poverty.

The work requirements were the heart and soul of the historic welfare reform signed by President Bill Clinton. As a result of “workfare,” welfare rolls declined by half within five years, and employment rates among low-income individuals increased.

Some of the biggest winners from workfare were children. Millions of children were lifted out of poverty. In 2003, the nation had the lowest level of poverty among black children in its history.

The Obama Administration’s undoing of this program threatens to set back America’s children and families. Conservative Members of Congress introduced legislation last week that would overturn the Administration’s plans to allow states to waive work requirements from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. At a hearing last Thursday, Representative Dave Reichert (R-WA) said:

It is critical for us to review the damaging effects of waiving TANF work requirements, which could result in less work and earnings, and more poverty and government dependence.

The reforms need to be restored and strengthened. However, TANF is just one of several welfare programs operated by the federal government to provide cash, food, housing, and health care assistance to poor and low-income Americans. Today, taxpayers fund roughly 80 different programs at a cost of nearly $1 trillion a year for these purposes. These include:

12 programs providing food aid;
12 programs funding social services;
12 educational assistance programs;
11 housing assistance programs;
10 programs providing cash assistance;
9 vocational training programs;
7 medical assistance programs;
3 energy and utility assistance programs; and,
3 child care and child development programs.

How many of the government’s 80-plus welfare programs include a work requirement? Just two.

While Americans are a compassionate people who want to help our neighbors truly in need, the overwhelming majority also understand the importance of promoting self-reliance and a better future through work. Regardless of political affiliation, more than 90 percent of individuals say that able-bodied adults should work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving cash, food, housing or medical care from the government.

Work requirements should not only be restored to the TANF program but should also be expanded to other government welfare programs, such as food stamps, one of the largest and fastest-growing welfare programs.

At a hearing last month, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) highlighted the critical need to reform the nation’s massive welfare system. He noted:

It is time to return to the moral principles of the 1996 welfare reform. That reform was guided by the principle that, over time, unmonitored welfare programs were damaging not merely to the Treasury but to the recipient.

Thanks to the 1996 welfare reform, people’s lives were changed for the better. Americans were lifted out of poverty. We need to expand these ideas, applying principles that help reduce dependence and allow more Americans to pursue the path of upward mobility to other government assistance programs.

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson was the editor of The Maine Wire from 2013 through 2014. A native of Dexter, Maine, Robinson is a graduate of Bowdoin College, and is currently a Producer for The Howie Carr Show in Boston.

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