“Need Welfare in the Bronx? Come Back Tomorrow, Maybe” — that’s the title of a recent Womensenews.org piece that questions the success of welfare reform. Caseloads may have dropped, argues author Anna Limontas-Salisbury, but the system leaves those in need feeling frustrated and discouraged. Specifically, she blames the system’s inefficiencies on the ’96 reforms — the ones that inserted work requirements and time limits into the main federal cash-assistance program and created Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).
The author is correct that the current welfare system is in need of reform, but work requirements are not the root of the problem. The real trouble is the fact that such requirements have been watered down.
The purpose of TANF was to add an element of human dignity to a system that pushed people into a cycle of government dependence, required little accountability of recipients, and negligently left people on the dole for an average of 13 years. It gave states incentives to help welfare recipients into the workforce.
Unfortunately, work requirements are all but nonexistent today. For the system to do what was intended, the original work requirements must be restored. Furthermore, other welfare programs need to promote personal responsibility through work, too. Few people realize that TANF is only one of more than 70 means-tested federal welfare programs — such as Food Stamps, public housing, Medicaid, and the earned income tax credit — which this year amount to some $900 billion in aid for poor and low-income Americans.
Remarkably, the amount government spends on means-tested welfare is four times what would be necessary to lift every poor person out of poverty. Clearly, just spending more on welfare isn’t the answer. To reduce poverty, the government should require able-bodied adult welfare recipients to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving aid. To accomplish this, the original, successful work requirements of the TANF program should be established for other welfare programs.
Limontas-Salisbury points out that the majority of welfare recipients are single mothers. This is no surprise, considering that single motherhood is the greatest predictor of poverty. At a time when the out-of-wedlock birthrate is at an all-time high — 41 percent overall and 72 percent for African Americans — the government can demonstrate seriousness about helping those in need by promoting marriage, which it could do by continuing healthy-marriage programs (another part of the 1996 welfare reforms) and by strengthening efforts to promote marriage through other sectors of society.
The answer to helping the poor is not to increase handouts or make them more readily available. Personal responsibility must be the fundamental element of every welfare program — and part of helping people into self-reliance is emphasizing the role of marriage. Without these reforms, government will only be creating more dependence.
— Rachel Sheffield is a researcher in domestic policy issues at the Heritage Foundation.