15 years after welfare “deform”

This week marks the 15th anniversary of welfare reform, also known as welfare "deform."

On August 22, 1996, aided by a Newt Gingrich-led Republican Congress and bitterly divided Democratic Party, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

The legislation gave life to a new "welfare-to-work" program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families that is administered through block grants to states.

"Welfare as we knew it" was over. The TANF program is set to expire in September.

In the economic boom of the 1990s, the TANF program was hailed by many as a great success with perhaps over half of the former recipients finding minimum wage work. In a 2006 tenth anniversary New York Times op-ed, Clinton boasted, "Sixty percent of mothers who left welfare found work, far surpassing predictions of experts."  

The fate of the other 40 percent seemed beyond the president's concern.

In today's economy, the modest employment gains in service industry jobs have been all but wiped out, with these workers joining their counterparts in the vast army of the unemployed - the 16 percent of the U.S. workforce who face the danger of permanent unemployment.

With poverty rising, TANF funds only reach 4.5 million families, or 28 percent of those needing assistance, according to Jake Blumgart of the American Prospect.

"By contrast, in 1995, the old welfare system covered 13.5 million families, or 75 percent of those living in poverty," he writes.

As might be expected in a period of recession and GOP budget cutting, the numbers of those in greatest need are growing.

"The increase in deep poverty has been especially large," writes LaDonna Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "The number of families in deep poverty rose by 13 percent between 1996 and 2009, from 2.7 million to 3 million."

In September, Congress is expected to pass a continuing resolution and re-approve the faltering TANF program. It should consider anti-recessionary employment measures not contained in the original bill.

The value of TANF funding has dropped by over 30 percent in the last 15 years; funding desperately needs be enlarged.

In addition, jobs measures such as the TANF Emergency Fund approved in the 2009 stimulus bill should be, at minimum, re-approved. Funding for jobs expired in September 2010.

However, to really address the crisis, much stronger legislation, including an extension of unemployment benefits and passage of the Emergency Jobs to Restore the American Dream Act introduced by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., is needed.

Congress and the president need to know nothing less will do.

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