Since Welfare Reform was enacted in 1996, the number of welfare recipients receiving cash aid has dropped precipitously, from 4.5% of the population to 1.5%. But decreases in recipiency—participation in one or more welfare programs—have been small: In 1996, 16% of the population received one or more of these benefits while nine years later, 15% were recipients.
What we commonly call welfare is officially called Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). Before 1996, it was called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).
Additionally, the Social Security Administration (SSA) runs the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program that gives cash grants to the disabled. The U. S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) oversees Medicaid and TANF.*
HHS classifies welfare dependence as “the proportion of all individuals in families that receive more than half of their total family income in one year from AFDC/TANF, food stamps and/or SSI.” 3.7% of Americans met this criterium in 2005, as opposed to 5.2% in 1996, a 29% decline in “dependency.”
Some poverty experts focus almost exclusively on dramatic declines in TANF enrollment. A recent panel at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) gave possible explanations for the decrease in TANF rolls including
• The “hassle” factor of new work requirements;
• Diversion policies;
• The social stigma attached to government subsidies; and
• Changes in political expectations.
Just because TANF rolls declined doesn’t mean these families no longer receive government aid, said Demetra Nightingale, a research associate at the Urban Institute. The principle research scientist at the John Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, she said that,
“Many of the workers tell us though that the number of families in need haven’t decreased, as Donna implied, and they may actually still be in the system somewhere…often they’re on food stamps and Medicaid, as we’ve mentioned, but also some are on SSI, which isn’t necessarily under the auspices of the welfare system but they’ll be getting food stamps through that…So it’s important to understand that just because the TANF caseload went down doesn’t mean they’re not there.”
LaDonna Pavetti, senior fellow at Mathematica, worried about the plight of those who have been taken off the rolls. According to Pavetti, the diverted population (those applying for welfare and not receiving it) suffers from “higher rates of hardship particularly around housing and food issues,” and have “lower take up rates” for food stamps and Medicaid. In addition “means-tested benefits are lifting a much smaller share of children out of deep poverty than in the 1990s,” she said. Means-tested benefits are subsidies you get when you don’t have the income, or means, to support yourself and your family.
According to New York University professor Lawrence Mead and Dr. Stephen Camp-Landis, shifts in cultural-political expectations about welfare dependence largely precipitated the 1990s rush for the poor to exit welfare. But, according to Mead, this exodus began even sooner in Wisconsin, with welfare rolls there peaking in 1986.
Mead argues that the shift from away from entitlement and towards work was most effective as a universal welfare policy shaped by political reformers. “The implications are that welfare reform involves more than economics, it’s also an institutional process,” he said. “Politics and administration are crucial to driving the work message home and that happened in different ways in different states.”
“Recipients responded to governance more than they did to incentives,” he said.
Dr. Camp-Landis, an NYU alumni, argued that work requirements had little effect on Pennsylvania’s reduced participation, since such requirements were weakly enforced. For example, he observed that while PA rolls declined similarly to other states, “Sanctioning was limited. Only 90 families in the state had lost benefits permanently by October 2002 as a result of sanctions, out of a caseload of what was roughly 600,000 people when the reform process began.”
Some panelists at AEI also questioned the importance of AFDC/TANF cash payments to recipients, before and after welfare reform.
“Larry [Mead] wrote in the email that he sent out that ‘cash welfare ceased to be central to how most poor single mothers coped with life.’…..I had a [sample size] of 3, but taking away what I had learned, the biggest surprise was that cash welfare had never been central to their way of life and I acknowledge that I was slow on the pick up there,” said Jason DeParle, New York Times columnist and the author of American Dream.
“I think it’s definitely plausible that strong work requirements in the welfare system convinced lots of people to get jobs, or rather not come onto welfare,” said Dan Bloom of MDRC. “You know, we have to remember the reality is the cash assistance never provided very much money and many of the qualitative studies that I’ve seen suggest that welfare probably played a smaller role in people’s lives than many people in the policy community thought that it did.”
The 2007 report issued by HHS states that nationally AFDC/TANF recipients were paid $157 monthly in 2005 on average. But focusing on TANF enrollment may obscure the government’s continued role in providing cash benefits to its citizens. The aged, blind, and disabled are eligible for supplemental monthly payments through SSI. (Disability includes non-physical ailments).
Of the 7 million individuals receiving SSI payments in 2007, 5.9 million were disabled, 1.1 million were 65 or older, and 68,000 were blind. “In January 2008, 7.4 million individuals received Federally-administered monthly SSI benefits averaging $476 monthly,” reported the SSA in 2008. “Of these, 7.1 million received monthly Federal SSI payments averaging $445, and 2.3 million received monthly State supplementation payments averaging $156.”
According to the 2007 “Indicators of Welfare Dependence: Annual Report to Congress,” compiled by HHS, while TANF enrollment is significantly lower post-1996, SSI beneficiaries are gradually increasing.
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.
*The Social Security Administration (SSA) has been independent of HHS since 1995 and the food stamp program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).