Yesterday marked 20 years since Bill Clinton’s controversial welfare reform bill went into effect, replacing America’s old safety net, Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), with a new one—Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)—intended to encourage welfare recipients to find work and become self-sufficient. But the reforms didn’t work out quite as well as policymakers hoped. Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, two experts on public policy, have an Atlantic piece this week critiquing the program as it functions today. This reader has a lot of firsthand experience with the problems:
I was not on aid during welfare reform (although I was many years previously). But I was a vocational counselor in California whose job it was to get people who applied for aid into some sort of work activity. Preferable was “unsubsidized” employment, but most often it was “Work Experience,” in which the “participant” was placed in a government or nonprofit agency (anywhere from 20-32 hours a week) and they were paid minimum wage, of which a portion was deducted from their grant. Transportation and childcare was paid for. This lasted for six months.
And after that? Well, we moved on to step two, which was usually just more of the same until they “timed out” or were lucky enough to land a job. Some people came in, got in the program, and took off running and wound up in good jobs with just a little hand up. Other people, even though they did well, did not always wind up with a paying job at the end. The reasons are many, but we can start with the economy.
When welfare reform was enacted in 1996, the economy was booming, employers were begging for entry-level workers, and getting welfare recipients into those jobs made sense. But those heady times did not last, and even the most talented of people struggled to find a job that would get them off aid—never mind those retail and fast food jobs with crazy hours that made childcare a nightmare and kept people in poverty anyway.