While campaigning for the presidency in 1992, former president Bill Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.” Clinton was responding to public pressure to reform the program of public aid to the poor, known simply as “welfare,” which by the early 1990s had developed a reputation as being wasteful and ineffective. In some ways, Clinton’s vision of welfare, a vision that emphasized work instead of dependency on the government, was quite different from the program that originated with Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), created by the Social Security Act of 1935. Michael Kelley, a researcher with the libertarian Cato Institute, describes ADC as a means-tested program with low-income eligibility requirements that was intended as a “national system of support for families in which the fathers were dead, disabled, or absent.” Poor mothers were expected to stay at home with their children and did not have to perform outside work in exchange for benefits. In the intervening years, ADC was renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and eligibility requirements were expanded to include two-parent families in which the primary breadwinner was unemployed.
Congress began a major overhaul of welfare beginning in 1994, and two years later, President Clinton followed through on his campaign pledge and signed legislation replacing AFDC with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Under TANF, the federal government delivers money, in the form of block grants, to states, thereby allowing states greater flexibility and authority in administering their welfare programs. This new program represented a changed vision of welfare’s purpose. Rather than a program of long-term assistance for the needy, welfare was officially considered a short-term program to help people become self-supporting. Heads of households are expected to find work within two years of receiving benefits, and families face a lifetime limit of five years of cash assistance.
No matter how welfare programs have been structured, they have always been unpopular with the public at large. While the work requirements instituted as part of welfare reform may have tempered public criticism to a degree, the majority of Americans continue to regard welfare recipients—by and large unwed or divorced single mothers— with equal parts scorn and impatience. In part, this is because work is not a prerequisite for collecting welfare benefits. In other words, welfare is not a “work-tested” program. Observes conservative commentator Mickey Kaus, “Most government benefit programs have been ‘work-tested’ since their inception. . . . Unemployment compensation is conditioned on prior participation in the labor force. Social Security pensions go only to citizens who’ve worked a sufficient number of ‘quarters.’. . . It’s no accident that these big programs are work-tested; otherwise they wouldn’t have been popular enough to get passed by Congress. The two great exceptions to the general work test, AFDC (‘welfare’) and food stamps, are exceptions that ‘prove the rule.’. . . AFDC only came into being as an ‘entitlement’ through a backdoor process that involved a minimum of democratic approval by Congress and a maximum of intervention by the federal bureaucracy and the courts.” Critics such as Kaus maintain that in exempting a large group of Americans from the work test, the government has created a protected class of citizens who are, based on lack of income, entitled to cash payments denied workers who pay their fair share of taxes.
Public resentment of welfare also has a strong basis in the program’s perceived diminution of the work ethic, the idea that hard work will lead to a better life. According to Virginia Postrel, editor-at-large of Reason magazine, “Americans deeply resent both the welfare system and its beneficiaries . . . resentment that is turning a culture of self-reliance and individualism into a culture of victimhood and nosy animosity. . . . Welfare’s defenders often disparage work—especially low-paid and manual work—and the people who value it. They imply that anyone who does such work is a victim or a sucker.” Many Americans feel insulted and threatened by welfare’s perceived disparagement of the work ethic. As a result, much of the public is in agreement with critics who see welfare as promoting out-of-wedlock childbearing, dependency on the government, and drug abuse, and are angered by reports of fraud and abuse of the system perpetrated by some recipients.
Still, the public support for Congress’ latest attempt to reform welfare is testimony that no matter how cynical Americans may have become regarding welfare, a majority still feel an obligation to help poor families. This desire to help the poor while upholding cherished American values of hard work, individualism, and community is the central conflict facing reformers as they grapple with the future of welfare and its reform. Anne Marie Cammisa, author of From Rhetoric to Reform: Welfare Policy in American Politics, describes how the welfare debate places Americans in an ideological bind, forcing a compromise between competing philosophies of individualism and community. Explains Cammisa, “If a person isn’t elderly, has no physical problems, and yet doesn’t work and has no money, many of us believe that he or she should learn to take care of himself or herself, that society doesn’t have an obligation when individuals refuse to help themselves. But what if that person has children? Should the value of individualism include them, or should they be taken care of under the value of community? . . . Under what circumstances should the community feel an obligation to help? These are some of the difficult questions that welfare reform must answer.” How the welfare system should be changed to minimize this conflict of values is debated and discussed in Welfare: Opposing Viewpoints. Chapters include: Does Welfare Encourage Dependence? Is Abuse of the Welfare System a Serious Problem? Can Private Efforts Replace the Welfare System? How Should Welfare Be Reformed?