Dec 1 2006

The Smell of Success

After 10 years of 'welfare reform,' ignoring the human impact

In August, the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program—popularly known as “welfare reform”—turned 10 years old, sparking a rash of articles looking back on how the new law’s emphasis on time limits and “work activities” requirements has fared. But even with recent figures showing poverty on the rise, by and large news media treated the program as an unquestioned success.

Defining what exactly constitutes “success” when it comes to welfare policy has long thrown reporters. TANF was originally sold as a program that would get people off welfare and into jobs, thus lifting them out of poverty. Yet journalists soon forgot about the latter half of the plan; as early as 1997, when President Bill Clinton announced triumphantly that the welfare rolls had dropped by 1.4 million people in under a year, most journalists declared this a sign of victory in the war on welfare, and didn’t stop to wonder what, if anything, “reform” had done about poverty (Extra!, 11-12/97).

It’s a habit that was again apparent in this year’s anniversary coverage. In the New York Times (8/21/06), for example, reporters Robert Pear and Eric Eckholm wrote:

When it was passed, some opponents offered dire predictions that the law would make things worse for the poor. But the number of people on welfare has plunged to 4.4 million, down 60 percent. Employment of single mothers is up. Child support collections have nearly doubled.

None of these, of course, are measures of what is “worse for the poor”—being employed and no longer receiving benefits is great if it means you can afford to pay your bills, but not so good if you’re bringing in less money than when you started. Pear and Eckholm never actually addressed their own implicit question about whether the poor are better off, instead filling their article with quotes from think-tank advocates of the new law, plus a lone criticism from a solitary “mother of three” (presumably a welfare recipient, though the authors didn’t say).

A Columbus Dispatch (8/20/06) series began by citing a local social worker who recalled that when Clinton first signed the welfare law in 1996, “I was one of those people who thought it would be a catastrophe.” The Dispatch’s assessment: “She and the others were wrong” because “welfare rolls nationwide have plunged to record lows.” The Dispatch concluded, “The new program hasn’t eliminated poverty, but it has modestly improved the lives of millions of poor Americans.”

It’s undeniable that overall U.S. poverty rates have declined slightly since 1996: About 12.6 percent of the population now lives below the official poverty line, compared to 13.7 percent when the law went into effect in 1996. But a closer look at the data reveals two separate trends: From 1993 through 2000, as the economy boomed, the poverty rate dipped. Then it began creeping up again, by 2004 rising as high as it had been in 1998.

More than that, though, focusing on overall poverty numbers can obscure the impact on the poorest individuals. “Just looking at the overall poverty rate misses a key part of the story,” says Mark Greenberg, a welfare policy expert who heads the Center for American Progress’ Task Force on Poverty. “At the same time that more families were getting jobs, others were losing welfare without finding work, and the share of poor children receiving assistance was plummeting. So poverty fell, but families at the very bottom got even poorer.”

A study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, released the week before TANF’s anniversary (8/17/06) to little media notice, found that “between 2000 and 2004, the number of children living in families with cash incomes below half the poverty line increased by 774,000.” At the same time, it noted, the number of children receiving welfare benefits declined—an indication that under the new law, caseloads remain low more because benefits are harder to obtain than because people are no longer in need.

In fact, as the CBPP report went on to note, 57 percent of the 3-million-family drop in the welfare caseload since 1996 reflects families who are poor enough to qualify, but no longer get aid. This “no work, no welfare” group, according to Congressional Research Service figures (3/9/06), roughly doubled as a share of single mothers below the poverty line (from 16 percent to 33 percent) between 1996 and 2004 (Congressional Research Service, 3/9/06). An Urban Institute study, meanwhile, found that in 2002, one in five former welfare recipients was subsisting without a paycheck, a working spouse, or welfare or disability benefits.

And even moving successfully from welfare to work is no guarantee that it will be easier to pay the bills. “For many families, moving to work has meant becoming ‘working poor,’ rather than ‘welfare poor,’” wrote Randy Albelda and Heather Boushey on AlterNet (8/23/06). As families’ incomes rise, they note, they lose work supports like housing aid and childcare, creating “the ‘running in place’ dilemma: Every additional dollar earned means close to a dollar lost in benefits.”

Many news outlets that did acknowledge the rising poverty figures nonetheless portrayed them as a mere footnote to the bigger story.

“Statistics indicate that welfare reform has been broadly successful,” declared NPR’s Neal Conan (8/17/06). His evidence? “Caseloads dropped by 60 percent; many former recipients did follow the slogan posted on many welfare office walls: a job, a better job, a career. Many others, though, are now among the working poor and struggle to get good childcare and keep a job to get an education or job training.”

Counterposing the “many” successes versus the “many” still struggling makes for a convenient parallel—albeit an odd argument for “broad success.” But just how many of those leaving the welfare rolls have moved on to “a better job, a career”? Greenberg notes that a yet-to-be-published study of Wisconsin women who entered W-2, the new “work first” program that replaced that state’s old welfare system, found that less than 20 percent had sufficient earnings to lift them out of poverty, even six years after entering W-2.

Mark Courtney of the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center for Children, which conducted a similar W-2 study, wrote (Washington Post, 7/24/06) that “four years after asking the welfare office for help, the parents were no better off financially. By 2003 the sample’s median income from earnings and welfare payments had actually fallen. Eighty-six percent were raising children on incomes below poverty level.”

The San Jose Mercury News (8/22/06), one of a handful of papers to report on the Chapin Hall study, summarized it as saying that “for many the blessings of work have been mixed.”

With the statistics so unimpressive, many defenders of TANF turned to a slightly more nuanced declaration: At least it wasn’t the disaster that critics had predicted. This was especially popular with the conservative pundits who dominated op-ed pages in the days around the anniversary. “The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called the measure ‘the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction,’” wrote Heritage Foundation president Ed Feulner (Chicago Sun-Times, 8/16/06). The Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner (San Francisco Chronicle, 8/22/06) recalled:

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat of New Jersey, predicted “hungry and homeless children” would be walking our streets “begging for money, begging for food, even . . . engaging in prostitution.” The Nation prophesied that “people will die, businesses will close, infant mortality will soar.” You would have expected to step over bodies in the streets.

Overblown rhetoric aside—and it’s worth noting that Lautenberg was actually describing modern-day Brazil as an example of “what happens to societies that abandon their children”—not all of the predictions of dire effects proved unfounded. Shortly before the welfare reform bill passed in 1996, for example, the Urban Institute issued a study projecting that “the bill would make large numbers of families that are already poor still poorer,” with the “poverty gap”—the total amount of money needed to lift everyone above the poverty line—for families with children projected to rise by $4 billion, or 20 percent. In fact, despite an unanticipated economic boom that coincided with the early years of the new law, it rose $1.7 billion between 1997 and 2005—less than the study predicted, but still a far cry from lifting poor families out of hardship.

Poverty researchers also point out that in addition to the unexpected economic boom, some of TANF’s most onerous requirements have not yet been fully implemented. The vast numbers of families leaving the rolls, for example, made states eligible for “caseload reduction credits” that allowed them to permit remaining welfare recipients to still receive benefits even if they violated federal work requirements—a bit of leeway that was eliminated in this year’s renewal of the welfare law (, 6/29/06).

That sort of detail, though, was almost universally absent from welfare anniversary coverage, as was any more nuanced look at how the new law has affected people’s daily lives. “Instead of applauding a program that just gets people off welfare and doesn’t look at their full lives,” Boushey told CounterSpin (9/1/06), “the press coverage really should have focused more on what it means to be a working-poor single parent in a country where most of the jobs that are the bottom half of the labor market don’t provide paid sick leave if your kid gets the flu.”

Unfortunately, poverty and lousy jobs don’t celebrate anniversaries.

Neil deMause looked at media coverage of welfare “reform” in the November/December 1996, November/December 1997 and September/October 2000 issues of Extra!.