Twenty years ago, Republicans successfully concluded a multi-year, national effort to reform America’s cash welfare program. The reform was based on one simple idea: the best way to change lives and help people out of poverty is a job.
The 1996 welfare reform law focused on the shared goal of lifting single mothers and their children out of poverty, but change did not come easy. Opponents were fierce in their disagreement and their rhetoric, claiming the reform would dismantle America’s safety net and increase child poverty.
Today, on the 20th anniversary of the landmark welfare reform law, Ways and Means Committee Republicans are releasing a new report demonstrating that this negative rhetoric has not matched reality. Instead, our report illustrates the historic success of the 1996 reform law, which helped people move off of welfare and into the workforce for the long term. Unlike most reports in Washington that wind up on a dusty shelf, this report will guide our Committee as we move forward with our better way to reduce poverty and help more Americans reach their God-given potential.
Prior to the 1996 reform, the nation’s major cash assistance program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, had been growing rapidly. In 1994, program rolls had increased by more than three million people in just five years.
In 1996, Congress eliminated this New Deal-era program and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which established strong requirements for states to help welfare recipients prepare for and find work. Importantly, TANF provided states with flexibility and resources to develop innovative local solutions that would best meet the needs of people in their communities.
This approach has delivered lasting results for children and families, lowering poverty over the past 20 years by increasing work and earnings. From 1995 through 2007, 1.5 million single mothers went to work, and the share of children in poverty fell dramatically.
And, despite the severity of the most recent recession, this success has endured. The number of families receiving cash assistance from the TANF program has fallen more than 60 percent since 1996 to roughly 3.8 million today – a decrease of more than 10 million people since 1994.
Behind these statistics are real people and real families, many of whom had experienced not just years trapped in poverty but generations. The 1996 reform helped break the cycle by offering people real opportunities to succeed and provide better lives for themselves and their children.
While the 1996 reform successfully modernized the nation’s major cash assistance program to help people move from welfare to work, these changes were not applied to the numerous other programs serving the same individuals. To maintain the progress of the past two decades, we must build on the efforts of 1996 to ensure more low-income families get the help needed to find jobs and experience the American Dream.
America’s welfare system is now a disjointed maze of more than 80 federal programs run by over a dozen federal agencies. Almost one-third of all Americans now receive benefits from at least one welfare program. Yet, with the exception of TANF, none of them have consistent work requirements, and none of them have fulfilled their mission of helping low-income families permanently escape poverty.
For those unaffected by the 1996 welfare reform law – working-age adults – poverty has continued to rise. Nearly two out of three American adults in poverty are not working today, and it’s clear the people experiencing the highest levels of poverty are the ones who would benefit most from a welfare system that better encourages and rewards work, rather than replacing it.
House Republicans have a vision for the next round of welfare reforms that will help more people find jobs, escape poverty, and move up the economic ladder. As laid out in our “Better Way to Fight Poverty,” we are committed to attacking poverty at its roots through personalized solutions that break down barriers to a better life.
As the 1996 welfare reform demonstrated, by expecting welfare recipients to work or prepare for work in exchange for receiving benefits, we can transform millions of lives and provide low-income Americans with real paths out of poverty.
We have a responsibility to apply these successful lessons to help all those who remain trapped in poverty today.
Kevin Brady, R-Texas, represents Madison County. This column was first published in The Hill.