In 1996 President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which became popularly known as "welfare reform," into law. The legislation transformed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a program intended to provide temporary financial assistance to low-income families while encouraging work and self-sufficiency. Most significantly, the 1996 welfare reform included mandatory federal work requirements, stipulating that welfare recipients must be engaged in work or some type of work activity in order to receive TANF benefits.
As Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation have written:
"Mandatory federal work requirements for recipients were at the heart of the change, which led to significant decreases in the program's rolls, increased work among former recipients, and historic reductions in child poverty."
Despite the success of the 1996 welfare reform, 20 years later there's still much to be done to ensure that the welfare system moves people towards work and self-sufficiency rather than towards government dependency. According to Rector and Sheffield's paper Setting Priorities for Welfare Reform:
"The United States' means-tested welfare system [still] consists of over 80 programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and lower-income Americans. Total annual spending on these programs reached $1 trillion in 2015. More than 75 percent of this funding comes from the federal government....
"Although the welfare reform of the 1990s was popular and initially successful, it was actually quite limited. Of 80 welfare programs, only TANF was reformed, and even in TANF, the vigor of reform has nearly disappeared."
Now, Senator Lee and Congressman Jordan have restarted the conversation, advocating for conservative reforms that will help reduce poverty and government dependency, increase self-sufficiency, restore families, and strengthen the effective and popular work requirements that have been gutted by the Obama administration. These ideas, and more, are found in the most comprehensive and serious welfare reform legislation introduced since Republicans regained control of Congress in 2010: the Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act of 2016 (H.R. 5360/S. 3047).
Upon introduction in May, Congressman Jordan said:
"Welfare programs are meant to be a temporary safety net, but they have become a permanent way of life for millions of Americans. Instead of giving impoverished families and individuals a helping hand, the current system penalizes positive steps toward self-sufficiency. This needs to change. I'm honored to work with Senator Mike Lee to improve the welfare system and help our fellow Americans realize their goals and potential."
Additionally, Senator Lee explained that the bill:
"...addresses deep problems in the federal government's welfare programs that make it more difficult for low-income Americans to work their way into the middle class and stay there. This bill would get existing federal welfare programs under control and would help the working poor transition from poverty to opportunity and security."
The bill contains 5 major policy reforms:
- Improves accounting of government welfare spending by requiring the federal government to report all means-tested welfare spending-including state and local,--as well as to report estimated spending levels over the next decade.
- Strengthens work requirements for all able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDS) who receive food stamps (SNAP). Similar reforms have been implemented in both Maine and Kansas with great success. It also creates a new work requirement for parents in SNAP, modeled after the 1996 TANF law.
- Strengthens TANF work requirements by implementing a new "work preparation requirement" for the 50 percent of the TANF caseload that is currently completely idle.
- Phases down the federal involvement in subsidized housing programs by decreasing the federal share of funding by 50 percent over ten years and transferring fiscal responsibility for these programs to the states.
- Prohibits any funding for abortion.
In a joint op-ed written by Senator Lee, Congressman Jordan, and Congressman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the bill sponsors argue:
"...welfare reform, properly understood, is as much a moral imperative as it is an economic necessity. Yes, we want a more affordable welfare system, but we also want inspired, self-reliant citizens, capable of leading productive and happy lives."
This sentiment is echoed by Rector and Sheffield at the conclusion of their paper:
"The foregoing reforms will increase efficiency in the use of taxpayer funds. They will reduce welfare dependence and decrease poverty through increased self-support. By promoting healthy marriage, they will enhance positive participation in society, increase upward mobility and improve personal well-being, thereby reducing the likelihood of future dependence and welfare expansion."
While there is more to be done to achieve comprehensive welfare reform, such as rooting out fraud in the Earned Income Tax Credit and Additional Child Tax Credit and eliminating marriage penalties, Senator Lee and Congressman Jordan's Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act is not just a white paper, but a serious and significant first step towards real welfare reform.
This bill builds on the successful 1996 law by restoring and strengthening TANF work requirements and by placing real work requirements into SNAP, the second largest means-tested welfare program in operation today. It requires accountability for welfare spending and moves towards creating true federalism in America's welfare system. If enacted, this legislation would be the start of Welfare Reform 2.0, by compassionately encouraging work, while saving the taxpayers trillions of dollars over the next twenty years.
***Heritage Action supports this legislation, encourages Representatives and Senators to support it, and reserves the right to key vote in the future.***