Welfare Retrograde?

On the Economix page of the New York Times Nancy Folbre has an article up revisiting the issue of welfare reform. Specifically, she mentions Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a program created in 1996 to replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). A major, and ultimately effective, criticism of AFDC was that the program dissuaded poor parents from working. Thus, TANF was created with the objective to encourage, promote, and reward the pursuit and attainment of work. Yet so far, TANF’s effectiveness right now has been found largely wanting. Folbre notes:

It was never intended to function effectively under conditions of high unemployment.

Indeed, caseloads and outlays in the program have increased much less than those in other forms of public assistance, like food stamps, which have less stringent work requirements.

Which leads her (and incidentally, me) to wonder:

Indeed, it makes one wonder whether the real purpose of reform was, as claimed, to help poor families, or simply to minimize spending on them. TANF benefits, adjusted for inflation, are now worth much less than they were in 1996 in most states. They are not sufficient in any state to raise a family’s income above 50 percent of the poverty line.

The much-acclaimed commitment to help poor mothers make a transition to paid employment has also weakened. Arizona and South Carolina have made particularly sharp cuts in child-care subsidies.

This phenomenon of reforming a system in such a way as to play less for it, while also as a way to help people, is something I see in Rep. Paul Ryan’s budgetary framework to reform Medicare. If we could have assumed in ’96 that the real effects in reforming AFDC wasn’t necessarily going to result in low-income parents more readily gaining employment as much as it was simply going to allow us to spend less on them, perhaps we might have done something different. So if the real world effects of Ryan’s plan to supplant Medicare result in nothing more than a reduced cost to the federal government while seniors receive fewer and worse benefits, then maybe we should try something else.

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