With welfare reform back in the news, thanks to the Democratic presidential primary, here's a look back at the politics and policy behind the 1996 Clinton-era law. The following is an essay I wrote, on the law, in April 2014 for a GW class on the history of American social welfare:
When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he passionately pledged to “end welfare as we know it.” In television advertisements and in campaign rallies, Governor Clinton extolled, “welfare must be a second chance, not a way of life.”  An astute political observer and learned student of history, Clinton was well aware of the unpopular perceptions of welfare recipients and he devoured wonky, detailed studies of the welfare system.  His appeal for reform was popular enough to aid him in his election victory but he also genuinely believed the welfare system was ineffective, demoralizing, and badly in need of restructuring.
Eventually, after vetoing two versions of welfare reform legislation, President Clinton signed a welfare-to-work law in July 1996 that ended welfare as an entitlement program and created a block-grant program named Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).  Nearly two decades later, the outcome of the law is mixed. On the one hand, the law was arguably successful in boosting resources for job training and some assistance for children and, in the short term, reducing welfare rolls while increasing employment. On the other hand, TANF did not provide a sufficient safety net for low-income families in the event of a recession, the law underfunded childcare, and its work requirements, though somewhat flexible, were convoluted for many states.
President Clinton’s fervent desire to tackle welfare reform arose out of a widespread perception among members of the electorate that welfare encouraged a culture of dependency. It was a concern shared by Clinton, who said at the time of signing the 1996 bill, “a long time ago, I concluded that the current welfare system undermines the basic values of work, responsibility, and family, trapping generation after generation in dependency.”  A student of public policy and of the history of American domestic social policy, Clinton was well versed in policy proposals such as those offered by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who argued for an overhaul of the welfare system in the late 1960s because he believed it contributed to the decline of family integration and increased dependency.  However, Clinton was also incredibly informed regarding the politics of welfare. It was a lightning rod political issue that aided Ronald Reagan’s ascension to the presidency and the rise of the conservative movement, which capitalized on middle class Americans’ economic insecurity to stoke their fears regarding low-income individuals. Public opinion polling at the time of Reagan’s election in 1980 indicated rising public opposition to liberal government activism.  More than a decade later, a month after Republicans regained control of Congress in Clinton’s second year in office, 56 percent of Americans told pollsters “the welfare system does more harm than good because…it discourages work.” 
The political and policy realities heavily weighed on Clinton, a deficit hawk as president who was also concerned about the roughly $14 billion annual cost of AFDC benefits.  However, for millions of Americans, welfare as they knew it, or Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), was literally a lifeline. According to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis, in 1995, AFDC “lifted 62 percent of children - 2,210,000 million, in total – out of poverty who otherwise would have been in deep poverty.”  Further, a sizable 63 percent of the populace indicated they would only support ending welfare benefits for Americans if they could get “decent jobs” and “job training and education” in the transition.  Liberal advocates for the poor, the leaders of the Children’s Defense Fund, and even Senator Moynihan were deeply worried that a Republican Congress was not interested in ensuring that enough children would be protected by the law or that the transition to work – in the form of job training and child care – would have adequate resources. It is partly for these reasons that Clinton vetoed the first two welfare reform bills sent to him by Congress. 
Though he favored welfare reform, and deeply disappointed his fellow moderate New Democrats when he did not pursue it in his first two years in office, he desperately wanted to receive a bill he could sign. For some in his administration and even in Clinton’s own thinking, the third bill sent to him was not entirely satisfactory either.  That is in large part because it contained a provision banning aid to documented immigrants. Eventually, Clinton though made the judgment that this opportunity was the last, best chance he had to significantly restructure welfare in America – a core priority of his domestic agenda – and his political advisers convincingly persuaded him it would aid his reelection bid. On August 22, 1996, Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA), which abolished AFDC and created the new program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). 
The mission of this new program, as outlined by Clinton, was to transform welfare into “workfare,” a term used by then-Senator Joseph R. Biden in the debate on welfare reform in the Senate floor prior to its passage.  Although liberal Democratic members of Congress, such as Senator Edward M. Kennedy, chastised Clinton for ostensibly turning his back on the poor, the president insisted his intentions were pure.  From Clinton’s perspective, “welfare is hurting the people it was designed to help.”  Further, according to public policy professor and welfare expert Robert Stoker, there were more specific goals that were part of this change too. “[The idea was to] end dependency on government benefits, encourage self-sufficiency,” Stoker said, “[and to] reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancy…[and] encourage the formation of two-parent families,” ideas that arose out of Moynihan’s studies linking welfare to the “disintegration of the family.”  Indeed, the law eliminated welfare as an entitlement enforceable in federal court, which is what AFDC was, and transformed it into a more state-based, stricter program. The changes, while significant in that they truly did “end welfare as we know it,” were not radical given that the Reagan administration had set in motion policies that both heightened the work requirement aspect of welfare and led to 42 states, by 1996, establishing waiver programs that weakened the entitlement component of AFDC.  Nevertheless, the PROWRA was consequential in that it was a fundamental shift from the assurance of welfare as a federal guarantee to a block-granted, more fiscally conservative program.
At its core, TANF is an assistance and welfare-to-work program that provides block grants (grants that are not terribly restrictive but feature broad aims) to states and in turn, states have wide flexibility to determine the administration of benefits, though their plans must be federally approved. This assistance today is typically on average $400 a month though the amount varies state by state.  However, in order to receive such assistance, adult recipients of TANF are required to seek work. Recipients must be engaged in a gainful “work-related activity” within 24 months or less of receiving assistance – or risk losing their benefits – with a lifetime limit of 60 months of benefits being in place.  “Under welfare reform,” Molly Ball of The Atlantic explained, “to get their block grants of federal TANF money, states must show that 50 percent of welfare-receiving families – and 90 percent of two-parent families – are involved in work activities.” In this arena, states also were granted significant power as they had the ability to reduce the time limit to below 24 months and could utilize “block grants in any way they wish to accomplish the goals of welfare reform,” as Stoker described it.  With regards to the work requirement, though discretion was granted towards states, services like preparations for job interviews, community college classes, and GED programs, in many cases, counted towards this requirement.  TANF also incorporated what was deemed the “maintenance of effort requirement.” According to welfare policy expert Mark Greenberg, “[this] requirement [was] that a state must spend at least a specified amount of state funds for benefits and services for members of needy families each year.” The maintenance of effort requirement –financed by what are called “separate state cash assistance programs” – is distinct in that it is separable from TANF funds and thus “not subject to federal work requirements” but integral to the law’s ostensible promise to provide sufficient resources for low-income families. 
In terms of the eligibility for receiving TANF, much of the criteria – beyond the aspect of a requirement to look for work or work-related activities – is in the power of a welfare caseworker. However, more broadly, being an “able-bodied poor person with children to support” or being a “poor pregnant woman” generally permits one to receive TANF. Numerous categories of individuals are barred from TANF though, including even documented immigrants who are in the United States for less than five years, convicted drug offenders, and, importantly, “people who refuse to cooperate with child support enforcement.”  This latter category is crucial to the law given that one of the welfare reform law’s most critical aims was to crack down on so-called “deadbeat dads," as they were commonly referred to in the contemporary political lexicon, and to more strictly enforce child support. It is for this reason that the law includes requirements that states determine goals for “reducing illegitimacy,” that unmarried teen high school drop-outs be barred from TANF benefits, that states establish robust child support enforcement mechanisms that mandate that a mother provide the name of the biological father of a child getting benefits, and that funding for childcare be boosted at the outset. 
With regards to assisting welfare recipients in seeking and gaining work, the PRWORA repealed the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS) Training Program, created in the Family Support Act of 1988, and led to the establishment of Welfare-to-Work Grants, initially authorized in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.  These grants, initially estimated at $3 billion, are provided by the U.S. Department of Labor to various community organizations and local entities in municipalities across the country to assist welfare recipients in finding and staying in work. “Competitive grants,” per the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “can be awarded to private industry councils, local governments (i.e. cities and counties), or nonprofit organizations.” As the PRWORA outlines, the work-related activities that TANF recipients must partake in can vary greatly, including efforts to obtain a GED or graduate from community college or skills courses.  In fact, the Welfare-to-Work Grants can legally finance a variety of forms of assistance for welfare recipients, including, “publicly funded jobs and other wage subsidies, on-the-job training, job readiness or job placement and education and training services, job vouchers, unpaid community service or work experience programs, and job retention and supportive services, including transportation,” according to the Department of Labor.  These federal grants though coexist with a certain degree of discretion for states as states, according to the analysis of Professor Stoker, “can establish conditions and requirements for ‘individual responsibility plans’ linked to TANF assistance.”  Further, states can even partner with charitable, religious, and other private sector organizations to aid TANF recipients in becoming part of a community workforce. 
Many of these specific components of the PROWRA were not explicit recommendations of President Clinton or the Democratic caucus in Congress though Clinton and many Democrats ultimately embraced the law. Indeed, much of the details of the law were established by the then-Speaker of the House, Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich from Georgia. Indeed, it was Gingrich who masterminded basing the law’s block grant formula on the welfare caseload levels for AFDC and JOBS at 1994 levels – the year when “state case workloads hit their peak.”  Capping the block grant distribution formula at the highest caseload level was no mistake on the part of this rabid conservative GOP leader. “Gingrich understood he would eventually prevail in the battle to reduce welfare as a proportion of our GDP and as a proportion of our government,” Professor Stoker asserted, “[so] the idea [was] to cap expenditures at that level to get the support of governors to implement the law and to let it all be controlled by inflation.”  Therefore, as Stoker noted, “nobody has to ever vote in favor of cutting welfare” and states were thus given block grants that were quite high in monetary value for recipients.  However, the caseload cap was lowered to 2005 levels, and work requirements were strengthened, in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, signed into law by President George W. Bush.  Four years later, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), an economic stimulus package signed into law by President Barack Obama, neutered much of Bush’s law and instead created a TANF emergency contingency fund that boosted federal support for the poor. 
Prior to Bush and Obama revising the law though, it was Bill Clinton who actually set it into motion. Though Clinton campaigned on reforming the welfare system, the decision on whether to sign or veto the PROWRA was actually not an easy one for him. At one point, while questioning advisers on whether he should give the bill his stamp of approval, President Clinton even said, “this is a decent welfare bill wrapped in a sack of shit.”  Given that Clinton’s arch political nemesis in the Republican Party, Speaker Gingrich, took the lead on crafting a welfare reform bill, it was obvious Clinton had misgivings. Even when he announced his intention to sign the bill into law, Clinton acknowledged “serious flaws” in the legislation.  The disagreements between Clinton and the GOP were vivid. “Clinton believed overhauling the welfare system…required lots of new money at the outset to help recipients with job training and child care,” author John F. Harris noted, “[but] Republicans resisted this…[leading] Clinton to veto [two] bills labeled welfare reform.”  Further, Clinton found the eventual law’s effective ban on documented immigrants receiving welfare as being “unconscionable” and believed the GOP’s inclusion of a “provision to eliminate nutrition supplements for low-income working families” to be “ugly.”  It was partly because of this latter provision that Clinton was deeply concerned the final bill was not sufficiently supportive of care for children. “He did not want,” wrote Taylor Branch, who extensively interviewed Clinton over the course of his presidency, “any lasting effect of his presidency to hurt children.”  Advisers such as Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and several officials in the Health and Human Services Department, including Peter Edelman, the husband of Children’s Defense Fund head Marian Wright Edelman, strongly urged Clinton against signing the final bill because it would be too painful for poor families. 
However, Clinton understood that this law was his final, realistic chance at changing the welfare system the way he promised he would and though he insisted privately he would be safe politically either way, there is no doubt presidential election year politics played some role.  In fact, Clinton even told his then-political adviser Dick Morris, “I signed the bill because I trusted you,” after Morris showed Clinton that his lead against Republican nominee Bob Dole, the GOP Senate majority leader who advanced the bill in his chamber, would increase if he signed the bill.  Nevertheless, Clinton’s experience and his studies of the welfare system informed his final call to sign PROWRA. “The president’s welfare audiences…pulsed with the…yearning for dignified work,” Taylor Branch wrote, “[and he believed] nobody hated welfare more than the people on it.”  Clinton also believed he could potentially overturn the worst parts of the law after his reelection but on whole, he genuinely concluded that the law “balanced work requirements with practical measures to foster opportunity from hardship.”  Clinton did not want to “leave the poor to their own devices,” as John Harris describes it, but he thought the final bill would not necessarily do that as he thought it included a sizable amount of financing for job training initiatives.  Ultimately, the decision, though politically motivated to some extent given the negative stigma associated with welfare, was the result of much consternation, solicitation of advice, and academic study. Clinton’s core belief that the welfare system “had trapped many recipients in cycles of dependency and failure, robbing them of self-esteem and offering no clear path to self-improvement” – a belief rooted in his experience as governor of Arkansas – meant he could not say no, from his perspective, to welfare reform.  The final decision to sign the bill, though politically popular nationally, did not sit well with liberals in Congress, including Clinton allies like New York Congressman Charles Rangel. In fact, Clinton's decision even led to the resignations of three progressive undersecretaries at the Health and Human Services Department, including Peter Edelman. 
Clinton though was right that the welfare system was imperfect, at best. For one, there were concerns about the toll that AFDC was taking on the national debt. The president devoted himself to deficit reduction in his first year in office and rode the wave of fiscal responsibility towards eventually balancing the federal budget. A 1994 U.S. Census study warned specifically of AFDC’s budgetary effects. “The country’s funding resources,” the study said, “are not unlimited, and there are many demands on them…[as] assistance programs must compete with all other uses of taxpayers’ funds.”  Further, the same exact Census publication, published in the same year Republicans retook control of Congress, specifically made the case for increasing work incentives in welfare. Citing extensive evidence, the study asserted, “both economic theory and empirical research indicate that such programs as AFDC adversely affect the work choices of the eligible population.”  “Programs [like] AFDC…must contend with the fact,” the authors of the study wrote, “that economic support has negative incentive effects to the extent that recipients are encouraged to rely on the program and not take steps to become self-supporting.”  It was examinations like these, rather than the GOP’s decades-long effort to disgracefully chastise “welfare queens” and stigmatize the poor for laziness, that Clinton trusted. It was not that welfare recipients did not prefer work – various studies and Clinton’s own interactions with them made clear they did – but the system, as it was designed, made it both difficult to find work and too easy to become accustomed to the culture of “dependency.”
Therefore, there were some clear benefits to welfare reform – benefits that were evident within the first few years after it was signed into law. On the one hand, though Professor Stoker is largely critical of the law from a liberal perspective, he credits the welfare reform law as “one of three reasons” why welfare rolls declined and employment increased during the late 1990s.  In a 2006 New York Times op-ed, at the time of the 10th anniversary of the law, Clinton heralded the successes of the law. “Welfare rolls have dropped substantially, from 12.2 million in 1996 to 4.5 million [in 2006],” Clinton penned, “[while the] Welfare to Work Partnership, which my administration started to speed the transition to employment, [led to] 20,000 businesses hir[ing] 1.1 million former welfare recipients.”  In making the case for the law, Clinton pointed to reductions in child poverty, larger funding for child care in the form of child support enforcement and even Head Start funding, the Access to Jobs Initiative, “which helped communities create innovative transportation services to enable former welfare recipients…to get to their new jobs,” and the “welfare-to-work tax credit, which provided tax incentives to encourage businesses to hire long-term welfare recipients.”  Clinton’s words are backed up by evidence. The National Bureau for Economic Research (NBER) found that welfare reform was successful in boosting job growth while reducing welfare caseloads. “The reforms,” the NBER found, “were successful in reducing welfare caseloads…[while] employment rates for low-skilled mothers increased.”  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also concluded that “TANF’s early years witnessed unprecedented declines in the number of families receiving cash assistance – and unprecedented increases in the share of single mothers working, especially those with less than a high school education.”  This evidence makes clear that there was some good that resulted from welfare reform. The positive effects of the law arose primarily in the first several years of its implementation. PROWRA reduced welfare rolls, increased employment, and promoted a unique array of flexible educational and job training options and initiatives that helped TANF recipients find work, as extensively aforementioned.
Nevertheless, the years that have passed since the Great Recession have clearly exposed those “serious flaws” with the law that Clinton spoke of when he signed it in 1996. When consulting with his advisers whether or not to sign PROWRA, Clinton received some prescient advice with regards to the downsides of the bill. “Economics adviser Laura Tyson,” wrote Taylor Branch, “mounted a sophisticated defense of welfare on Keynesian grounds…conclud[ing]that welfare, more than other entitlement programs, reacted early to signs of general economic stress with finely calibrated payments that stimulated recovery…[and was a] vital tool against recession” in the event of a financial meltdown.  Tyson’s fear that block-granting welfare, thus giving much latitude to states in allocating benefits, would weaken financial support for poor families – thus risking greater poverty for them in the event of an economic crash – came to fruition. “The 1990s reforms,” Bryce Covert wrote in Think Progress in February 2014, “have hampered [welfare] from rising to meet Americans’ needs.” 
A significant reason for this is the recession, as Covert concluded when he wrote that the law “failed to keep up with the spike in need form the recession,” pointing to the fact that “the number of unemployed people doubled between 2007 and 2009 but TANF’s rolls only rose by 13 percent, and in some states they actually fell.”  In a December 2012 analysis of TANF, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) further asserted, “TANF’s response to the recession demonstrated just how weak a safety net it has become.”  “Because TANF reaches so many fewer families AFDC did,” the CBPP wrote as it criticized states for providing levels of funding that were insufficient for the poor, “it provides substantially less protection against poverty and deep poverty.”  The study pointed to the fact that in 2011, just 27 percent of families in poverty actually received TANF benefits.  Ultimately, as Dylan Matthews noted in a Washington Post analysis, the recession combined with states not providing enough funding amid this economic calamity for low-income individuals meant that “welfare reform led to a huge spike in extreme poverty.”  TANF expert Liz Schott accurately described the negative effects of TANF when she told The Atlantic in 2012 that “in the late 90s, the economy was strong and many people [left welfare] for work…[but] when the economy turned down, unemployment rose and people lost jobs…[and] when the big recession came, caseloads only rose a little bit.” 
It is because of these reasons that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in 2009 included various measures to temporarily boost welfare spending. These provisions are partly ideas from President Obama’s most progressive first-term economic adviser, Christina Romer, who insisted they were necessary because the laws on the books were not sufficient to help the poor in the event of a recession. The fact that ARRA needed to include a TANF emergency contingency fund, an increase in SNAP funding, a promise that the federal government “would pay 80 percent of recession-related costs” for TANF, and a guarantee that states with expanding welfare caseloads would not be punished by the federal government all indicate that TANF was insufficient for poor families.  Further, the block granting of childcare, when combined with the work requirement for the parents of impoverished children, resulted in significant underfunding of children’s needs, as their parents sought work, in many states.  This conundrum was reflected well in liberal filmmaker Michael Moore’s controversial 2002 documentary, Bowling for Columbine, which showed how in his home state of Michigan, where the grant for childcare was rather ungenerous, children would be separated from their parents and sometimes not have a safe place to go without adequate education or day care funding in the state.  Lastly, the work requirements in welfare, though expansive in terms of the range of activities that were covered, were confusing for states. In her research and reporting, The Atlantic reporter Molly Ball found that “being counted as working is not as simple as checking one of those boxes; it’s a complicated formula that allows some activities only for a certain number of hours per week, or a certain number of weeks per year.”  Restrictions like these led to a torrent of Republican and Democratic governors alike writing to the Bush and Obama administrations urging them to make work requirements more flexible. In the summer of 2012, Obama obliged, as the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) issued guidance to states that clarified that states could receive waivers to the work requirement as long as they demonstrate that the plans they would put in place instead “would increase…the amount of welfare recipients working.”  The fact that a bipartisan consensus of governors rallied around this change before it was enacted, ultimately embraced by the Obama administration, indicates that the definitions of work requirements, especially as it relates to time allotted for work, in the welfare reform law were too constricting. (Ironically, one of the GOP governors who signed one of these aforementioned letters was Massachusetts' Mitt Romney, who, in the heat of the 2012 presidential campaign, went on to dishonestly portray Obama as "gutting" the welfare law's work requirement.)
When President Clinton signed welfare reform into law, he did so knowing that there would be both upsides and downsides to such a huge change in American domestic social policy. Indeed, the PROWRA had such a split effect, initially being a big boon to welfare recipients and the economy at large but eventually, because of its block-granting mechanism and failure to foresee the financial crisis, being too restrictive in support for the poor.
 The Living Room Candidate – Commercials: Second Chance (Clinton, 1992). http://www.livingroomcandidate.org/commercials/1992.
 The Survivor, John F. Harris. 2005. Page 233.
 Harris, 234.
 The Age of Reagan – The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, www.gilderlehrman.org.
 National Survey of Public Knowledge of Welfare Reform and the Federal Budget, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. December 30, 1994. http://kff.org/medicaid/poll-finding/national-survey-of-public-knowledge-of-welfare/.
 Kids Would Be Victims of AFDC Cut, The Chicago Tribune. Rose, Henry. September 1, 1995. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1995-09-01/news/9509010069_1_monthly-afdc-afdc-program-afdc-benefits.
 Kaiser Family Foundation, kff.org.
 Harris, 233.
 PROWRA: Federal welfare reform. Stoker, Robert P. Spring 2013.
 What Obama Really Did to Welfare Reform, The Atlantic. Ball, Molly. August 2012. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/08/what-obama-really-did-to-welfare-reform/260931/; Stoker.
 The TANF Maintenance of Effort Requirement, Mark Greenberg. 2002. http://www.clasp.org/resources-and-publications/archive/0035.pdf.
 Harris, 238-239.
 Harris, 233-34.
 The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, Branch, Taylor. 2009. Pages 368-70.
 Ibid.; Harris, 234-249.
 Harris, 239.
 Branch, 371.
 Branch, 368-69.
 Harris, 234-36.
 Harris, 233-34.
 Branch, 371.
 The Poverty Measure and AFDC, U.S. Census, 1994. https://www.census.gov/hhes/povmeas/methodology/nas/files/afdc.pdf.
 How We Ended Welfare, Together, The New York Times. Clinton, Bill. August 22, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/22/opinion/22clinton.html?_r=1&.
 Branch, 368.
 The Failure of Welfare Reform Hits New Records, Think Progress. Covert, Bryce. February 21, 2014. http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/02/21/3316531/welfare-reform-failure-record.
 Fact-checking Bill Clinton on the economy, The Washington Post. Matthews, Dylan. September 6, 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/09/06/fact-checking-bill-clinton-on-the-economy/.
 Bowling for Columbine, Moore, Michael. 2002.