The 1996 law replaced Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) -- traditional welfare -- with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Congress created AFDC in 1935 as part of the landmark Social Security Act, which also included unemployment insurance and old-age assistance. In an era when few women worked, AFDC was intended to provide modest income support for widows and their children. By the 1980s, it had evolved into something else: guaranteed payments for single, often never-married mothers. Critics argued that the program bred dependence, weakened self-reliance and rewarded out-of-wedlock births. TANF set new rules. It eliminated the automatic entitlement to benefits. To qualify, mothers had to look for work, take job training or both (states set exact requirements). There was a general five-year lifetime limit on receiving benefits.In a new book, "Work Over Welfare,'' Brookings Institution senior fellow Ron Haskins -- a Republican congressional staffer during the welfare debate -- cites much evidence of success.
Welfare caseloads have plunged. From August 1996 to June 2005, the number of people on welfare dropped from 12.2 million to 4.5 million. About 60 percent of mothers who left welfare got work. Their incomes generally rose. Many qualified for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, which subsidizes low-income workers. Finally, there were intangible benefits: work connections, self-respect. One lesson is that what people do for themselves often overshadows what government does for them. Since 1991, for example, the teen birthrate has dropped by a third. The mothers least capable of supporting children have had fewer of them. Welfare reform didn't single-handedly cause this. But it reinforced a broader shift in the social climate -- one emphasizing personal responsibility over victimhood.Good for Congress! (with minor assistance by Bill.)