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Forgetting what we learned about welfare

Jennifer Marshall Patterson | Why would we bring back what failed?

President Bill Clinton speaks at the White House prior to signing welfare reform legislation in 1996. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite (file)

Forgetting what we learned about welfare
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On August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed legislation enacting welfare reform after campaigning on the promise to “end welfare as we know it.”

“All Americans, without regard to party, know that our welfare system is broken,” President Clinton told governors on the eve of the reform. The system, he said, “hurts those it was meant to help.” A Republican majority in Congress had also pledged reform, and a bipartisan consensus had emerged that federal welfare was not providing what its architects—including Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson—had intended: a hand up, not merely a handout, for those in need.

The 1996 welfare law transformed the largest federal cash assistance program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, into Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The key word was temporary. To overcome long-term poverty and dependence, the restructured program engaged recipients in work or preparation for work.

The revamped program worked. The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program enrollment fell by half, as more recipients could support themselves outside the cash payment system. Employment among single mothers increased. Child poverty fell to a historic low. Those gains are at risk today, as President Biden and many others seem to have forgotten why reform was successful and are undermining its foundations.

Welfare reform worked because it recognized that decades of unconditional cash grants to address poverty had ill-served those in need. By the 1990s, researchers identified worklessness and unwed childbearing as the key contributors to long-term poverty. Human need cannot be reduced to the merely material. Human flourishing is bound up with the reality that we are made in the image of God for purposeful activity and designed to thrive in relationship.

The welfare reform of the 1990s also gave the states leeway to innovate and improve their family assistance programs. It structured federal payments to the states in a way that gave state leaders more reason to engage recipients in work, moving away from open-ended entitlements. In addition, the reform’s work requirement was actually imposed on state welfare agencies rather than recipients themselves. State agencies were required to engage half their work-capable enrollees in finding or training for work. The states had to take responsibility.

Yet, too many assumed that the 1996 legislation actually had ended welfare as we knew it and that the work of policymakers was done. In reality, the reformed family assistance programs were only one of the dozens of federal programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical and social services to poor and low-income Americans. All these programs require reform as well.

Welfare that will really offer a “hand up” to those in need will feature the same work-based policies that succeeded in previous reform. Astoundingly, some of these programs actually impose marriage penalties on recipients. These penalties can make it more financially advantageous for single mothers on welfare to be unmarried and to stay unmarried.

Other programs designed to help low-income recipients gain skills for employment and life require reform so that providers are paid according to participants’ successful outcomes, not just for delivering a program.

Clearly, much more about the welfare system needs changing than could be accomplished by previous reform. But now, even what it did achieve is at risk. Despite having voted for the 1996 legislation as a senator, President Biden has marked its 25th anniversary by introducing policies that undermine successful welfare reform.

In March 2021, the president’s announced American Rescue Plan included a monthly “child allowance,” totaling $3,600 per year for children under six and $3,000 for older children—packaged as a response to the pandemic. Now the budget reconciliation package looming in Congress would extend the policy to 2025, in what is widely known to be a bid to make it permanent. The government “child allowance” significantly expands the existing Child Tax Credit and delinks it from work. The majority of new benefits are cash grants to families who owe no income tax in the first place.

The result is new unconditional cash payments to non-working households, taking us back a generation to “welfare as we knew it”—before the reforms that rewarded work. Similarly, the administration has unilaterally increased benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by 25 percent—an unprecedented increase through an unprecedented sidestep of congressional authority over the program. The proposed food allowance would actually exceed what the government itself estimates to be food costs for a family.

The welfare reform of the 1990s was only the beginning of a policy transformation needed to help more Americans actually overcome long-term poverty and dependence. But most Americans simply fail to understand how these programs work. If we really mean to love our neighbors, that needs to change.

Jennifer Marshall Patterson

Jennifer Marshall Patterson is a visiting lecturer and director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.) and a senior visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation.


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I was on AFDC in the early 90's before the reform. Even the welfare workers were astonished that I wanted to go back to work - and it was hard, because every dollar I earned took one dollar away from my benefit, which made making ends meet that much harder, since I now had more expenses. But people NEED to be productive. Thomas Sowell's work needs to be brought back to public attention - he knew what he was talking about. My personal opinion is that our current government is doing everything it can to enslave our country by making people dependent on the government, so they don't "rock the boat".

Steve Dossin

The problem with old style welfare is not so much that benefits are granted without work. It is that they are taken away when one does work, or gets married. Better welfare programs would decide the basic benefits that all citizens should have as a minimum, and provide them to every citizen. We do not need bureaucrats deciding who is worthy of help. See the ComingTogether Plan at coming together.info for a better way.

Allen Johnson

Studies show that a fee on carbon with the money collected to be distributed equally to every citizen would benefit the poor. That is, the higher prices they would pay for transportation, heating, electricity, and raised food prices would come back. to them at a higher level.


Having worked all my adult life as a social worker, then ESL teacher, I’m 100% certain there is no public program that will yield a long term improvement in the quality of life issues in chroniclly low income populations. We can create many open doors, but in the end, the key is the determination to take personal responsibility for the kind of life you want for yourself and your children. Without this, the cycle of defeat is endless. Nothing will ever change.


UBI would be an unmitigated disaster. The government has no money except that which it takes from working people.
2nd Thessalonians 3:10
Charity is not the government's job. Charity is the responsibility of individual believers, giving cheerfully and not under compulsion.
2nd Corinthians 9:7


While Universal basic income would indeed remove the problems FIMIKI listed, the goal of poverty alleviation would be missed completely. Poverty is not simply a material problem. Poverty, as defined by the worlds poor, is the inability to escape their dependency. To be dependent on another for what you need. Its a depressing and hopeless feeling. I have seen this feeling both when one lives comfortably with their parents or in a slum. If we want to give people dignity and freedom than we need to work individually to share life with them, not throw money and enable them to be dependent. Relief should always be administered carefully and to those who truly need it. Restoration and development should be our main goals, not to just get them a job, but to teach them how to move continually toward the dreams and goals they have in life. Will UBI enable us to freedom or aid us to dependency? I would like to learn more.


At about the same time as the welfare reform bill was passed, Larry Burkett published "What Ever Happened to the American Dream. This book outlined how OSHA, EPA, and the Tort system were destroying our country. There are few work opportunities for low skilled labor. One must assume that the recipients of these federal handouts are ready to begin work on Wall Street or Washington DC. The "Rust Belt" still has nothing to offer.


What makes universal basic income so attractive to me are:
1) the possibility of decoupling welfare from the bureaucracy of the administrative state
2) the removal of perverse incentives associated with loosing assistance when income rises
3) removing the moral imperative to prop up failing employers during economic downturns

I wish conservative policy planners could give UBI an honest look.