Setting the Priorities for Welfare Reform

The United States’ means-tested welfare system consists of over 80 programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to poor and lower-income Americans. Total annual spending on these programs reached $1 trillion in 2015. More than 75 percent of this funding comes from the federal government.

The last substantial reform of welfare, enacted in 1996, transformed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program into the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Mandatory federal work requirements for recipients were at the heart of the change, which led to significant decreases in the program’s rolls, increased work among former recipients, and historic reductions in child poverty.

Although the welfare reform of the 1990s was popular and initially successful, it was actually quite limited. Of 80 welfare programs, only TANF was reformed, and even in TANF, the vigor of reform has nearly disappeared. Welfare reform should be rejuvenated and expanded.

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