Twenty years after Bill Clinton signed a bill that promised to “end welfare as we know it,” he has kept his word:
Nationally, the number of people receiving cash assistance has fallen to 4.1 million, from 12.3 million in 1996. In Arizona, the number of cash assistance recipients has plummeted to 20,495, from a monthly average of 155,000 in 1996-97.
The 1996 law reversed six decades of social welfare policy, eliminating the individual entitlement to cash assistance for the nation’s poorest children and giving each state a lump sum of federal money with vast discretion over its use. The amount of the main federal block grant has remained at $16.5 billion annually since the law was adopted, but inflation has shrunk the value of that money about a third.
In addition, the reach of the program has been greatly reduced.
In 1996, for every 100 families in poverty, 68 received cash assistance. That fell to 23 for every 100 in 2014. And in a dozen states including Arizona, the number is fewer than 10 in 100.
In response, the very poor have devised what Kathryn J. Edin, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, called survival strategies. Some, she said, sell plasma, a blood component. Some collect metal junk and aluminum cans and sell them to scrap dealers. Some move in temporarily with friends or relatives to save on rent.
“We’ve shredded our cash safety net,” said Ms. Edin, who examined those tactics in her book “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” written with H. Luke Shaefer.
From teens filling income gaps to the peripatetic schedules of service sector jobs eating up parenting time, the welfare reform bill looks like a textbook example of crooked intentions producing foul results. Shorter welfare rolls look more attractive during boom times.
Also, note how states “racialized” the policy, thanks to the transformation of welfare into block grants:
In other words, people had become so focused on racial issues that race really drove the patterning. They were not necessarily conscious of it; it was race-coded and below the radar for most people. But all of the states with more African-Americans on the welfare rolls chose tougher rules. And when you add those different rules up, what we found was that even though the Civil Rights Act prevents the government from creating different programs for black and white recipients, when states choose according to this pattern, it ends up that large numbers of African-Americans get concentrated in the states with the toughest rules, and large numbers of white recipients get concentrated in the states with the more lenient rules.
Thanks, Bill Clinton.