Sunday, August 4, 2013

Clinton-Era Welfare Reform

Quick data note. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was passed in the House in 1996, and implemented mid-1997. Did this Clinton-era welfare reform succeed? It depends on what you mean by "succeed." The blue-dog Democrat and Republican goal of welfare reform was to cut the welfare budget and cut the number of people on welfare. This goal is based on the theory that welfare creates dependency on government hand-outs, creating a generation of lazy people--in Paul Ryan's language, "more takers than makers." This theory persists, despite the fact that no social science data supports this theory, and on the contrary, the opposite is actually supported by the data (lack of welfare support statistically ensures that people will not climb out of poverty), it has become the governing party policy since Reagan, as well as the national assumption of voters from center to right, including the "socially liberal but economically fiscal" voters, often self-labeling as "blue-dogs."

If your metric of welfare reform "success" is cutting the welfare budget, then that was somewhat successful, as the table below shows. Likely not nearly as much as supporters of reform would have liked, a mere 28% decrease in the SNAP budget from 1995-2000 (in 2002 $). Considering that the total welfare budget (housing, SNAP, TANF, etc), is less than 3% of the total federal budget, a 28% decrease in this one program is negligible, despite the tidal wave of rhetorical use this reform has generated by the right and blue-dogs regarding the "success" of this bipartisan welfare reform legislation.

If your metric of success is a decrease in the number of people on TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) and SNAP (food stamps), then millions of families were removed, thus representing "success." On the other hand, if your metric of welfare success is the well-being of children, then the program was a resounding failure. This result is unsurprising if one recognizes that SNAP feeds children, and the average time that people are on welfare (those who have received aid), is 6-12 months, far from the narrative of "life-time dependence" described by the right and center. As the table shows, in 1995, 95% of children in poverty were receiving food stamps, and 62% were receiving temporary aid. However, in 2000, 75% of impoverished children were receiving food stamps, and 38% were receiving temporary aid. This means that despite measurable food insecurity of these children and family poverty status, over 5 million impoverished children were dropped from the food aid program, and the number of children in poor families who received TANF support was more than cut in half. Personally, I would not count malnourished children as a successful program reform. (The data was taken from a Congressional report in 2004, "Indicators of Welfare Dependence.").

Fiscal YearFood stamp child participants (in thousands)Food stamp child participants as a % of children in povertyTANF child recipients (in thousands)TANF child recipients as a % of children in povertyTotal SNAP program cost (in millions of 2002 $)
199414,39194.19,44861.8 $26,133
199513,86094.59,01361.5 $26,368
199613,18991.28,35557.8 $26,169
199711,84783.97,07750.1 $23,391
199810,52478.15,78142.9 $20,881
19999,332764,83639.4 $19,572
20008,74375.54,40638 $19,029
20018,81975.24,13835.3 $19,970

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