Welfare-to-Work in a Jobless Economy

The recent rise in the national unemployment rate to 9.5% calls into question the wisdom of the 1996 welfare reform legislation that disbanded the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program in favor of the current Temporary Assistant to Needy Families (TANF), which among other changes requires adult welfare recipients to engage in “work-first” activities as a condition of receiving aid.

In any economic downturn, the first jobs to get shed and last to return are low paying service sector jobs, the very jobs low-income families rely on to survive. The 1996 TANF reform was predicated on the misnomer of the “culture of poverty” myth, an argument rejected decades ago by social scientists. The policy architects essentially argued poor people choose welfare over employment and therefor punitive measures were necessary in welfare legislation to compel people to work.

The policy was deemed a success for years because the legislation was passed concurrently with a market boom. Since there were more jobs at the time, people naturally got off welfare and went to work, not on account of welfare reform, but because of a strong economy instead.
With unemployment at a record 26 year high, economist Sheldon Danziger pointed out that

the overhaul of cash welfare since 1996, aimed at pushing single mothers into jobs, “makes sense when unemployment is 5 percent.”

“But if you are out of work, the welfare system in a time of recession doesn’t have anything to offer,” he said.

As the recession persists, and people time-limit out of welfare assistance, the flaws of the 1996 welfare reform will become increasingly clearer. If we are to truly move forward with a progressive, effective national anti-poverty policy, we need to move away from a collective cultural ethos that wrongly believes that poor families choose poverty over prosperity.
(Photo by khalilshah)