Fifteen years ago today, after lengthy battles between a Republican-led Congress and a Democratic White House, President Bill Clinton signed into law the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, otherwise known as welfare reform. Among other changes, the act inserted work requirements and time limits into the nation’s largest cash assistance welfare program.
As a result, five years after the reform, 3.5 million fewer individuals lived in poverty, and the poverty rate for black children dropped to its lowest level in the nation’s history.
However, there have been dramatic limits to the 1996 reform. First, the reform itself has been eviscerated. For many years, Democrats in the Senate blocked reauthorization of the reform law. In addition, states found loopholes to evade the reform’s pro-work provisions. As a result, the federal work requirements, which were the main factor driving dependency reduction, became meaningless: Welfare reform has been moribund for roughly a decade.
Second, the federal government operates more than 70 means-tested welfare programs providing cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and low-income Americans. The welfare reform of 1996 changed only one of those programs. The rest of the welfare state was untouched.
Overall welfare spending has continued to rocket upward. Adjusting for inflation, the total cost of federal and state welfare programs has doubled since the reforms. In 1996, total spending was just under $500 billion (2008 dollars), whereas today the total is nearly $910 billion.
When major funding of federal welfare programs began in the 1960s under President Lyndon B. Johnson, welfare was never intended to become the behemoth that it is today. Johnson asserted that his “War on Poverty” was “not only…to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, prevent it.” Yet, rather than helping to relieve, cure, or prevent poverty, welfare has become a machine for promoting government dependence, contributing to the monstrous U.S. debt we face today.
Even as the living standards of the poor continue to improve such that families in “poverty” live in comfortable housing and possess many of the amenities of middle-class families—microwaves, DVD players, video game systems, and cell phones—the federal government continues to pour more money into welfare.
In response, Representative Jim Jordan (R–OH), along with some other House members, introduced a welfare reform bill earlier this year that attempts to get federal welfare spending under control. It places a cap on total annual welfare spending, rolling back costs to pre-recession (FY 2007) levels once unemployment drops to 6.5 percent. It also calls for greater accountability. Welfare programs span 13 federal departments, with their costs buried in the recesses of each agency’s budget, making it next to impossible to get a picture of total welfare spending. The proposed reform would require Congress to print a detailed tally of welfare spending in the President’s budget each year to force accountability. Similar to the 1996 reforms, the new proposal promotes personal responsibility by inserting work requirements for able-bodied individuals into another one of the nation’s largest welfare programs: food stamps.
A nation cannot remain independent when its people depend on government for their every necessity. Instead of helping individuals reach self-reliance, welfare has become a hindrance. The 1996 reforms prompted significant debate about the importance of work and personal responsibility and took bold steps forward to base government assistance on such principles. Yet, 15 years later, America finds itself needing to restore these ideals. For the nation to be fiscally secure and independent, each citizen must likewise strive to be self-reliant and free from the bonds of government dependence.