President Bill Cllinton signs the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act into law, August 22, 1996. (Reuters/Stephen Jaffe)

A "failed policy based on failed research": The destructive legacy of Bill Clinton's 1996 welfare reform act

The 1996 welfare reform bill has subjected a generation of families to increased poverty and poor health outcomes


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Eesha Pandit
August 28, 2016 5:00PM (UTC)

Twenty years ago this week, President Bill Clinton signed a historic welfare reform bill formally known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

With this legislation, Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.” Ten years ago, he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times declaring it a success. Now, 20 years on, the transformation of the welfare system is complete, but the question remains: What kind of transformation has it been, and what has it meant for poor families in the U.S.?

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A new report from the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at the University of California Berkeley finds that some key provisions have not only failed poor families, but exacerbated poverty, increased instability and worsened health outcomes for the families involved.

Let’s start with some important history. As of 1996, the year that the American welfare system was “reformed,” the existing welfare program, called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), had been in place for 61 years. It was a relatively simple program — if you were poor and you had children, you were eligible for a welfare check from the government. It began in 1935 through the Social Security Act part of the New Deal, and was amended in 1962 under the Kennedy administration.

The AFDC program focused on providing relief to white single mothers. Black single mothers were largely ineligible for benefits because they were often paid off the books and the state-operated programs were often explicitly discriminatory, justified by the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” doctrine. For decades, notably while the recipients were predominantly white women and their families, the cornerstone of the program was cash assistance. This all changed in 1996.

Originally, this program was administered by the Department of Health and Human Services. Welfare reform changed the structure of the program entirely. It ushered in a new and more restrictive program called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). TANF operated differently than the AFDC in several important ways. It became a state, rather than federal, program, taking the form of a block grant -- the federal government gives a flat amount each year and leaves it to the states to prioritize and administer the funds. It also set four key priorities for states, and offered states great flexibility in how to spend the money. The focus was to get families off welfare altogether, by securing jobs. The four pillars of TANF are:

  1. Support families with cash welfare, like the old program
  2. Get welfare recipients into jobs
  3. Reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancy
  4. Encourage marriage

Shifting the implementation of the program to the states brought some troubling developments. An investigation done by Marketplace exposed some of the ways that states are misusing their TANF funds. Almost completely ignoring the express aims of TANF funds, Michigan spends nearly $100 million a year in TANF money on college scholarships, including for middle class and upper middle class students.

While former President Clinton still defends welfare reform, recent data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities compared the way states use their TANF dollars to their poverty rates. They found that TANF reduces poverty at lower rates than the AFDC did. Under TANF, nearly every state decreased the proportion of welfare funds used for cash assistance, which has contributed to an increase in deep or extreme poverty.

Let’s zoom in on one element of welfare reform that makes this issue starkly clear, the Welfare Family Cap.

Post-1996 many states passed family cap policies, which deny additional benefits or reduce the cash grant to families who have additional children while on assistance. Welfare benefits are most often calculated based on family size at the time that families apply for assistance. For example, if you have one child, apply for TANF assistance and are determined to be eligible, you get a particular set of benefits depending on your state's policy. Often, benefits include resources to support your child. In states with family caps, if you have a second child, you will receive no additional support for that child.

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Currently, 17 states have some variation of a family cap policy.

Jill Adams, executive director of the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice and a contributor to the Berkeley study, explains the harm caused by family caps, telling Salon that the reforms “focused significant attention on family formation in its stated goals and underlying motivations -- valorizing marriage, stigmatizing 'out-of-wedlock birth,' and demonizing poor, unmarried mothers (of color) as the source of many social ills.” This policy, she says, has population control origins and clarifies that while the legislative history and findings do not speak to the racial or ethnic identities of the group most affected, it’s largely understood that these were women of color.

“Welfare Family Caps are prima facie offensive, ineffective, and harmful," Adams said. Their study shows, in fact, that family caps don’t actually lower the number of children born to welfare recipients. They do, however, increase the poverty rate.

Since 2002, seven states have repealed their family caps. Among these is California, which repealed its family cap just a few months ago in a hard-fought campaign led by reproductive justice advocates throughout the state. Samara Azam-Yu, Executive Director of ACCESS Women’s Health Justice in California, and a leader in the repeal effort, called the state’s family cap “a failed policy based on failed research.” She told Salon that their coalition found a surprising amount of bipartisan support for the repeal effort and that she hopes that policymakers who have supported this policy in the past will step up and call for its repeal around the country, “because this policy has harmed families for over a generation.”

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Jill Adams notes that the issue of racial injustice was central to the California repeal, telling Salon, “In pointing to the undeniably stark racial disparities, our repeal effort in California was able to gain new supporters and momentum. According to the California Department of Social Services, 57-60% of households affected by the Family Cap are Latino and 17-24% are African-American.”

Samara Azam-Yu reminds us of California’s long history of eugenics and population control that targeted women of color, noting that the policy had “an added layer of reproductive oppression, because it included a loophole for those that could prove that they were either on long-acting contraception when they became pregnant or that they had been raped.”

This pushes low-income families to choose a contraceptive method, not because it’s the best for them and their families, but because that’s what their policymakers demand. It also punishes those survivors of sexual assault who don’t report the crime, since they have to report the crime to use the loophole. The problem is, more than 60 percent of survivors don’t report the assault.

Proponents of family caps argue that without the caps, impoverished people would be incentivized to have more children, but the data does not bear this out.  The caps further plunge families into poverty, making it harder and harder for them to get out of poverty.

Even with cash assistance, which is dwindling in many states, many families cannot afford to take care of their daily needs. We must count this as part the legacy of welfare reform. California’s recent success in repealing this punitive policy is a heartening turn in the 20-year story of welfare reform. Hopefully, it’s just the beginning.

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Eesha Pandit

Eesha Pandit is a writer and activist based in Houston, TX. You can follow her on twitter at @EeshaP, and find out more about her work at eeshapandit.com.

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