By the numbers, welfare reform was a success.
More than 13 million people received cash assistance from the government in 1995, before the law was passed. Today, just 3 million do.
“Simply put, welfare reform worked because we all worked together,” Bill Clinton, who signed into law welfare reform, or the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times in 2006. Clinton had campaigned on a pledge to “end welfare as we know it” and today it is all too apparent that he succeeded.
The law replaced AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) with TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families—“temporary” being the key word). It stipulated that people could receive no more than five years of government benefits in a lifetime, though states could set their limits lower and many did, with some instituting a two-year lifetime limit. It required a certain percentage of welfare recipients in states to be working, and said that those who couldn’t find jobs would have to participate in community service or get vocational training. Those who didn’t work or volunteer would eventually be kicked off the welfare rolls.
The law also changed the way the federal government handed out assistance. TANF is administered through so-called block grants to states, which are large chunks of money the federal government gives to states for programs with few restrictions on how the money is used. If states spend the money on cash assistance, they have a number of rules they have to follow, but they’re also free to spend it on something else entirely; Michigan, for instance, spends much of its block grant on college scholarships; Texas spends much of its on foster care, according to H. Luke Shaefer, a University of Michigan professor and a co-author of $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America.