Think Progress notes the 15th anniversary of President Clinton's welfare reform by highlighting one of a series of charts from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showing that the reform has let too many families fall through the safety net.
The number of low-income families receiving welfare has fallen from 68 percent in 1996 to 27 percent today. As the American Prospect’s Jake Blumgart noted, unlike the old system, which could respond to greater need when the economy went south, the TANF block grant program "provides an annual lump sum of $16.6 billion, with no allotted increases for recession, population growth, or rises in the cost of living." It has even failed to keep up with inflation. In short, TANF’s ability to provide income support to those who need it most has declined dramatically.
Thus, during the worst recession in 80 years, TANF only reached 4.5 million families, or less than a third of those living in poverty.
All of this while poverty rates have held alarmingly steady over the past 40 years, but with a demographic shift.
Fewer seniors but more children are poor since the War on Poverty began more than 40 years ago. Also, despite persistent efforts in both the public and private sectors, poverty rates in the U.S. have remained stubbornly the same since the mid-1960s.
It is because wages for low-skill workers have declined, more households are headed by single women and more immigrants arrive in the U.S. with little education, according to research from the Evans School of Public Affairs at University of Washington.
Robert Plotnick, a professor at the Evans School, found that the interplay between earnings, education and demography results in about 14 percent of the U.S. population consistently stuck in poverty. He also found that in 2009, the latest date for which census figures are available, the poverty rate among children was 20.1 percent — 50 percent higher than in 1969. (Note: In the hyperlink to U.S. Census information on poverty, go to Table 3: Poverty Status, by Age, Race and Hispanic Origin.) [emphasis added]
Welfare-to-work doesn't work so well when there aren't any jobs, and the result is a new—and enlarged—population of Americans growing up in poverty. This is a a good lesson for policy-makers who are thinking about changing another critical safety net program, Medicaid. The House Republican budget by Rep. Paul Ryan would do what TANF did, creating a block grant program. The result would be much the same as we see with TANF, an inability of the program to keep up with need or inflation during economic downturns. The blended-rate Medicaid reform proposed by the White House in deficit negotiations would likely do much the same.