Going Backward on Work

A major cause of poverty is simply that few poor adults, both men and women, work regularly. The welfare reform of the late 1990s caused millions of welfare mothers to leave welfare for work, reducing the rolls by two-thirds and making most of the leavers better off. As work levels among poor mothers soared, poverty among children and minorities plunged to the lowest levels in history.

Conditionality and work first, as these policies became known, were legislated by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996. They were embodied in the new Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Criticism of TANF has recently mushroomed, and some have suggested that reform should be reversed. There is in fact no sound reason for doing that. The best way to raise work levels among the poor is to maintain and improve the reform we have—and extend it to poor men.

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