Once upon a time, welfare had defenders. Then welfare reform came and went without leaving millions of indigent mothers and children begging in the streets, and the debate was declared over. “Welfare reform helped to move 4.7 million Americans from welfare dependency to self-sufficiency within three years of enactment,” says the White House in a fact sheet, “and the number of welfare caseloads has declined by 54 percent since 1996.”
It’s never been entirely clear, however, where all those people went. Sure, many of them got jobs during the late-90s expansion. But some may have simply been bounced from one form of welfare to another.
A new report by the Congressional Budget Office finds that even as AFDC/TANF (the former Aid to Families with Dependent Children program was renamed Temporary Assistance to Needy Families by the ’96 act) shrank, other federal benefits programs—like the earned income tax credit (EITC), Food Stamps, Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)— swelled.
“Unlike the pattern with AFDC/TANF, those other four programs have generally experienced increases in participation in recent decades,” CBO says. And as of 2003 each program served more people and required more money than TANF. SSI, for example, was serving 6.9 million people in 1996. In 2003, it claimed 8.4 million beneficiaries. Food Stamps go to 24 million people, up from 17 million just three years earlier.
The people who left AFDC could be different from the folks who’ve recently enrolled in SSI or Food Stamps. And even if they are the same people, getting Food Stamps or SSI might be an improvement over receiving AFDC. But it doesn’t seem like the “self-sufficiency” the White House boasts about. It seems like welfare reform has done no better than welfare at curing the underlying problem, which, once upon a time, was called “poverty.”