We Forgot To End Poverty

Poverty remains at record highs. Is that because welfare reform failed, or because it succeeded all too well?

Chris Rhomberg

With poverty high and welfare all but gutted, soup kitchens are busy. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In Sep­tem­ber, the Cen­sus Bureau released the lat­est fig­ures on pover­ty in Amer­i­ca. You may not have noticed, because the report made bare­ly a rip­ple in the media or the midterms. It showed that from 2012 to 2013, the over­all pover­ty rate fell by half a per­cent­age point, to 14.5 per­cent — the first sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant decline since 2006.

The mod­est turn­around might be cause for hope, but pover­ty still remains well above the pre-Great Reces­sion rate of 12.5 per­cent in 2007. In raw num­bers, 45.3 mil­lion peo­ple lived below the pover­ty thresh­old in 2013. That’s close to the peak of 46.2 mil­lion in 2010, the great­est num­ber in the more than 50 years the gov­ern­ment has tracked the data.

That real­i­ty stands in stark con­trast to the polit­i­cal sup­port for our cur­rent pol­i­cy of 
wel­fare reform.” The cor­ner­stone of that approach is the 1996 Per­son­al Respon­si­bil­i­ty and Work Oppor­tu­ni­ty Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Act (PRWO­RA). The law elim­i­nat­ed the pre­vi­ous Aid to Fam­i­lies with Depen­dent Chil­dren pro­gram and replaced 
it with Tem­po­rary Assis­tance for Needy Fam­i­lies (TANF), which imposed work require­ments on recip­i­ents, set strict time lim­its
on eli­gi­bil­i­ty for cash ben­e­fits, and sanc­tioned fam­i­lies for fail­ing to com­ply with pro­gram rules.

The effect was dra­mat­ic. Wel­fare rolls fell by around half in the first few years, and employ­ment among
poor sin­gle moth­ers increased amid a strong late-1990s econ­o­my. The debate is over,” said Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton a year after sign­ing the law. Wel­fare reform works.” Con­ser­v­a­tives agree: In 2012, Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Paul Ryan called the pro­gram an unprece­dent­ed suc­cess,” and now Repub­li­cans want to make sim­i­lar changes to Med­ic­aid and food stamps.

As a social safe­ty net and path­way out of pover­ty, how­ev­er, TANF can­not now be regard­ed as any­thing but a dis­mal fail­ure. At best, less than two-thirds of pro­gram par­tic­i­pants are able to get a steady job when they leave the rolls. Many of those with­out work have sig­nif­i­cant bar­ri­ers to employ­ment, includ­ing lack of edu­ca­tion or work expe­ri­ence, to say noth­ing of the scarci­ty of jobs we have seen post-Great Recession.

Shock­ing­ly, despite the reces­sion-induced spike in pover­ty and the evi­dent lev­el of need, TANF pro­vides even less aid today than it ever has. In the past sev­er­al years, states have short­ened time lim­its, tight­ened eli­gi­bil­i­ty rules, and divert­ed wel­fare funds to pay for oth­er aid pro­grams in order to reduce their own bud­get deficits. Accord­ing to the Cen­ter on Bud­get Pol­i­cy and Pri­or­i­ties, more than half of all states had low­er case­loads at the end of 2013 than at the start of the reces­sion in Decem­ber 2007.

When TANF was first cre­at­ed 18 years ago, 68 out of every 100 U.S. fam­i­lies with chil­dren in pover­ty received cash assis­tance. That num­ber has now fall­en to just 26 out of every 100. Some fam­i­lies have been dis­qual­i­fied due to time lim­its, but the evi­dence sug­gests that many more are dis­cour­aged from even both­er­ing to apply.

It’s worth recall­ing that the PRWO­RA was a com­pro­mise bill: Con­ser­v­a­tives got the empha­sis on moral val­ues (“per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty”), while lib­er­als got a lim­it­ed focus on job train­ing (“work oppor­tu­ni­ty”). Both sides attempt to reform” poor par­ents to push them into the low-wage labor mar­ket, but nei­ther side ques­tions the fail­ure of that mar­ket to pro­vide fam­i­lies a secure way out of poverty.

Even as unem­ploy­ment edges down­ward, mil­lions of Amer­i­cans remain poor, expos­ing a basic flaw in the TANF approach: the lack of jobs that pay a liv­ing wage.

Indeed, almost 70 per­cent of poor chil­dren in 2013 lived in a fam­i­ly where some­one actu­al­ly worked. A sin­gle par­ent with a child can work a full-time job — 40 hours per week, 52 weeks a year — at the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage of $7.25 and still not earn enough to lift their fam­i­ly out of pover­ty. And many poor work­ers can­not get full-time work: Around 8.2 mil­lion or 15.8 per­cent of part-time or part-year work­ers were poor, the high­est lev­el since 1987.

Nev­er­the­less, across the polit­i­cal spec­trum, the law is wide­ly hailed as a suc­cess. Case­loads are down, states are spend­ing less, and the prob­lem has dis­ap­peared as a con­tro­ver­sial cam­paign issue. We suc­ceed­ed in end­ing wel­fare as we knew it. We just didn’t both­er to end poverty.

Chris Rhomberg is asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of The Bro­ken Table: The Detroit News­pa­per Strike and the State of Amer­i­can Labor.
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