Reporter's Notebook

What Should America Do About Welfare?
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Twenty years ago, the controversial welfare reform bill that President Bill Clinton signed replaced Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) for a new welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Prompted by a critique of TANF by Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, readers share their personal experiences with TANF and AFDC and debate the merits of welfare. Join them via

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Gillian recently explored “How the Tax-Prep Industry Takes Advantage of Low-Income Filers”—namely by overcharging poor people to process the refund they receive through the Earned Income Tax Credit. “A new report finds that some Americans are giving away nearly 25 percent of their refund for services they could get for free,” Gillian wrote. Here’s a representative experience from a reader:

I get the EITC. This year I got my taxes done at H&R Block and they charged me almost $400. They didn’t have any price listings anywhere and didn’t explain pricing in person before we started. I walked in thinking it was a $50-100 service and left feeling scammed. Yes my refund is large, but that’s my emergency fund for the entire year. Next time I’ll know better.

A helpful email via hello@ just came in from two doctors, Michael Hole and Lucy Marcil, plugging a program they founded to help low-income people keep more of their tax money:

As pediatricians, we think Gillian B. White’s article means more than major tax-prep chains like H&R Block and Liberty taking money from America’s most vulnerable and working families. It means potential damage to the health and wellbeing of the country’s future and most precious resource—her children.

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.

From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, this reader was “the product of the AFDC program”—the Aid to Families With Dependent Children. Here she describes the ups and downs of growing up on welfare:

I was the third of four daughters. My mother was a traditional homemaker when my parents divorced. I’m not sure about the dynamics of what occurred, but I know that money from my father was not received. He insists he tried paying, but my mother insisted he never provided it.

In any regard, back then there were no reliable daycares, just other women who would babysit. Additionally, my mom had some mental-health issues that made it very difficult for her to ever maintain full-time employment. But mostly, she was a housewife—that was her dream growing up as a young woman in the 1950s. The option for my mother was to go back to work and leave us kids alone (like some other single moms did) or go on welfare. She opted for the latter.

I will admit, I was embarrassed as a child, growing up in a middle-class neighborhood on welfare. We did not live well. There was no extra money for new clothes or for the latest gadget. Clothes were hand-me-downs from older sisters or friends.   

I have a distinct recollection of going with my mother one of the times she had to “prove” that she was still worthy of assistance. It was a humiliating process. The welfare office was filled with people who were treated like herds of cattle. Every aspect of your finances was scrutinized. Sometimes they would send out a caseworker to do a “spot check” on the house. My mother hated it, and it always left her in a sour mood.

Being on AFDC also qualified us for free breakfast and lunches. I swear, I would’ve starved some days if we didn’t have that option. Many days there was only dry milk, bread, mayonnaise, and mustard in the refrigerator. More than once did my sisters and I eat mustard-and-mayonnaise sandwiches.

One winter, our hot-water tank broke and we didn’t have money to repair it. We live in Buffalo, New York—Buffalo with no hot water in January. Have you ever washed your hair in cold water? To bather we had to heat up pots of water on the stove to dump into the bathtub.

Repairs in the home had to wait and there was always something broken. Our car was always on the verge of breaking down. We did not have cable or Atari Pong (yes, it was way back then). We went way too long without doctor’s appointments and frequently went to clinics or emergency rooms because we owed the regular physician too much money. And not many doctors took Medicaid.

But despite all this, I have nothing but praise for AFDC. Why?

That’s the experience of this reader, who thinks “the biggest problem with welfare and TANF is the work requirement.” Her story shows why:

In October 2013 I had my daughter. She was born with an ultra-rare
disease. (She is one of 50 patients worldwide.) I, at the time, had a decent job in the restaurant industry as an Event Director. I worked non-traditional hours and some weeks more than 70 hours a week. This wasn’t conducive to caring for a child with only a three-year life expectancy. I tried my hardest to juggle it all. In February of 2014 I lost my job.

No day care would take my daughter because of her condition. They didn’t have the proper equipment to keep her safe. No friends would babysit because they were afraid of her. The only day care that took assistance closed at 6 p.m.

But even if I had found another job, I would not have been able to find one making what I was making that would allow me to take off two days a week to make doctor’s appointments my child needed to survive—not to mention the several surgeries and hospitalizations.

I have always worked, often more than one job, since I was 14. But, now I needed help. I applied for TANF and was told that I would not qualify for any services because I was “work-ready.”

Nothing. All my hard work. All the taxes I have paid. I could get nothing.

Nothing does not put gas in the car to get to appointments. Nothing does not buy the medical equipment my child needed. Nothing would not keep our lights on, or buy diapers or tampons.

How does this story end?