News Release

TANF at 16: The Failure of Welfare “Reform”

TIMOTHY CASEY, tcasey at, Legal Momentum
Casey is senior staff attorney with Legal Momentum, “the nation’s oldest legal defense and education fund dedicated to advancing the rights of all women and girls.” He said today: “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families has been a disaster for poor parents and kids. Under TANF, the enrollment rate has declined from 79 percent to 40 percent of eligible families and from 72 percent to 27 percent of the number of poor families; benefit levels in every state have fallen to less than half of the poverty standard; real federal funding has decreased almost 30 percent; the share of program funds used for basic assistance has shrunk from 73 percent to 31 percent; the program has responded slowly and weakly or not at all to recession and economic downturn; and arbitrary interstate and regional disparities in benefit amounts and enrollment rates have continued or grown worse.”

Yesterday’s New York Times Sunday magazine cover story “Obama vs. Poverty” indicated that children raised by single mothers in low-income houses are less likely to be well behaved and disciplined. Casey and Legal Momentum have publicly objected to this sentiment, as well as the supporting quotation used by the New York Times. Said Casey, “The male author of the article quotes a male interview subject as stating, ‘If you don’t have a father figure in your life, you don’t have discipline and structure, and without structure, you don’t have anything. You have chaos.’ The article then states, ‘This analysis has support from many of the academics who study [poverty],’ yet the author never mentions any contrary points of view – even though many experts disagree strongly.

“Half of all U.S. children spend at least some part of their childhood in a single mother family, just as President Obama did. Most of these children are well behaved, do well in school, and grow up to be productive workers, good parents, and upstanding neighbors. It is true, as the article says, that some children in single mother families, like some children in single father families, and some in coupled parent families, will be permanently scarred by the deep poverty that far too many U.S. children experience. However the problem is not single motherhood — it is the flawed social policies that allow child poverty to persist in the U.S. at much higher rates than in other high-income countries.”

See Legal Momentum’s “Facts About Single Motherhood in the United States – A Snapshot 2012.” [PDF]

RANDY ALBELDA, randy.albelda at
Professor of economics at University of Massachusetts Boston, Albelda said today: “Welfare reform did usher in a new approach to poverty by promoting employment. But despite a very large increase in single mothers’ employment — and now unemployment — we have the same old poverty problem. Two out of every five single mother families live in poverty now. This is the same ratio as in 1996. Most single mothers cannot work their way out of poverty — definitely not without the right kinds of supplemental support. It is the nature of low-wage work and the incredibly shallow safety net that most needs reform. Current discussions about marriage and “loose” work requirements are a distraction from the real problems facing poor families in the United States. There are many possible policy steps that could work for single moms and other low-wage workers. But ultimately, better designed assistance to poor and low-income families, old-fashioned cash assistance, and minimal employment standards must be part of the formula.” Albelda is co-author of Unlevel Playing Fields: Understanding Wage Inequality and Discrimination.

SHAWN FREMSTAD fremstad at, Alan Barber, alanbbarber at, Center for Economic and Policy Research
Fremstad is a senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and was previously deputy director of welfare reform and income security at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Fremstad said today: “On August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed legislation that replaced the Social Security Act’s Aid to Families with Dependent Children with a right-wing block grant scheme called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The TANF law was prematurely lauded as a success before it had even been fully implemented.

“It is now clear TANF is a failed program that needs to be overhauled. TANF’s failure [is borne out by the fact that] just over 1 million more children lived below the poverty line in 2010 … than in 1992, before TANF’s implementation.

“The 1996 TANF law deeply cut the actual amount of resources available through AFDC/TANF to help struggling, working-class families. Because block grant funding has remained frozen at its 1997 level, its actual value (adjusted for inflation) has fallen by nearly 30 percent. The main consequence is that millions of struggling working-class parents who would have been helped finding a job, going to school, or meeting basic expenses if AFDC were still in place are not getting any of this help under TANF. Of particular note, only about one-quarter of families with income below the federal poverty currently receive help from TANF to meet basic expenses. Before implementation of the 1996 law, over two-thirds of such families received help from AFDC.”