Restoring Personal Responsibility in Welfare

Rachel Sheffield /

Fifteen years ago, Congress voted to “end welfare as we know it.” As a result, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program was created (in place of the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children), which, for the first time, inserted work requirements and a five-year time limit for those receiving federal cash assistance.

The success of the reform was notable. Millions of families left welfare for jobs, and the poverty rate among African-American children dropped to an all-time low.

Unfortunately, the aspects that made TANF successful have been significantly watered down over the years, as Senate Democrats have blocked reauthorization of the reform law and states have used loopholes to evade work provisions.

On September 8, the House Committee on Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee held a hearing to discuss the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

As subcommittee Chairman Geoff Davis (R–KY) noted:

Despite significant success since welfare reforms were enacted in the 1990s, in Fiscal Year 2010, over four-in-10 TANF families faced no work requirement at all, and less than a third of families facing work requirements actually met them in Fiscal Year 2009.

Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Public Welfare, Gary D. Alexander, testified that his state has faced a similar issue, noting that in Pennsylvania there are “almost 10,000 individuals…on TANF who [have] been on for more than five years,” and within the last year the state experienced “a 31 percent decrease in the percentage of TANF individuals who are working.”

Professor Douglas Besharov of the University of Maryland said:

…even in this time of high unemployment, TANF, and, actually, all major income-support and social welfare programs…should encourage recipients of government assistance to stay connected to the labor force, by which I mean working, seeking work, or seriously increasing their job-related skills.

The government operates more than 70 different welfare programs, and TANF is just one. Total state and federal welfare spending is edging towards $1 trillion annually with no end in sight. Of all the programs, TANF is the only to include any type of work requirement, and these requirements have been all but pushed aside. It is important that the promotion of self-reliance created by the 1996 reforms is restored, and as Alexander stated: “There is no reason that other benefit programs should not encourage self-reliance.”

The purpose of any assistance program should be to help people get to a position where they are no longer relying on government aid. As Alexander asserted, “Only a program that values and encourages work first will…create a system that empowers individuals and promotes strong families.”