Is Welfare Reform the "Great Recession's" Worst Casualty

A Sunday, Washington Post op-ed by two longtime opponents of welfare reforms enacted in 1996 argues that the reformers’ early self-congratulatory behavior regarding the new welfare system was, to say the least, premature.

A summary of the piece:

As welfare rolls across the country decreased and some former recipients found work in good economic times – the late 1990s boom – even some early skeptics called it a success.  But what went largely unnoticed was that even in prosperous times many who left the rolls did not find enough work to lift themselves from poverty; and others slipped into more abject poverty as the old safety net was, by design, left in tatters.  The 2001 economic downturn exposed, to close observers, more of the new saftey net’s vulnerabilities.  But it is now, during the so-called “Great Recession” that the failure of the American welfare system to work for the swelling numbers of families who most need it are cast in stark relief.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which is the federal government’s cash welfare program, supports about 5 million Americans.  This one third the amount of people it supported in 1994, even though the country is presently enduring its worst economic crisis since the 1930s.  The number of homeless Americans has risen by 61% in the past two years, and in 2008 alone the number of Americans in poverty rose by 2.5 million.  Still the TANF system, unlike the food stamp and unemployment insurance programs, has not expanded to catch Americans falling into poverty.

The op-ed is partisan in tone, and is critical of conservatives and centrist-Democrats who once touted a slash in the welfare system as being the best medicine for the nation’s poor.  But the apparent failure of the system to support so many of the country’s impoverished families during a severe economic downturn does raise nonpartisan questions about how well crafted the reforms were.  (Unless, as the authors point out, alleviating national poverty was never a reform goal: “If the real purpose of welfare reform was simply to reduce the rolls, it’s been a smashing success.”)

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