Home > The 1996 Reforms and TANF > The War on the War on Poverty

The War on the War on Poverty

I’m sad to report that welfare devolution has continued under the Clinton administration with the passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). This act, which instituted Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in 1997, has implemented much more stringent requirements for welfare assistance and has therefore drastically cut the welfare rolls. The problem is that we have not seen an equivalent decrease in poverty rates. The problem is that when Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it” his goal was to simply cut people from the rolls without realizing that these people “don’t just disappear” (Sommerfeld, Reisch 309).

In fact, all of the people being cut from federal welfare have turned to nonprofits for help. Average demand for nonprofit services has increased by 26% since the passage of PRWORA, putting a huge stress on nonprofits (Sommerfeld, Reisch 303). This increased demand for nonprofit services is a result of the new time limits and work requirements embedded in welfare policy, which have drastically reduced the number of people that can qualify for federal assistance. For example, nobody can receive TANF funds for more than 60 months during their lifetime (Suppan 13). Furthermore, the requirements increase over time. In 1997, 20% of single mothers had to work at least 20 hours per week in order to qualify for welfare, by 2002 that number will jump to 50% of single mothers required to work at least 30 hours per week (Suppan 13).

The emphasis on work requirements may seem like a positive attribute of the new welfare legislation, and only 20 hours a week may seem very reasonable, but this policy does not take into account the fact that the state no longer provides childcare or transportation services, which were mandated by previous work requirements in welfare legislation (Suppan 13). Without these services it is nearly impossible for welfare recipients to hold a steady job. In addition, most welfare recipients do not have the skills to obtain anything other than “go nowhere jobs” with which they are “unable to keep up with the cost of living” (Sommerfeld, Reisch 305). Also, under the PRWORA’s “workfare” programs, which seek to provide employment for welfare recipients, Baltimore’s 209 public school custodial trainees make as little as $1.50 an hour (Suppan 22).Image

Overall, the “unspoken assumption of the new model is that the global economy will create jobs at wage and benefits levels to empower recipients of the Welfare Reform Act programs to become economically self-sufficient”, but this clearly has not been the result (Suppan 14). First of all, in order to provide employment for all of the people displaced by the cuts to welfare, job creation would have to quadruple (Suppan 14). Second of all, even if the opportunities were out there, welfare recipients do not have the resources to access them.

As a result of this dilemma, welfare recipients and former welfare recipients have turned to nonprofits for assistance. Through this “all our fears were realized; there is an increased demand for services with no corresponding increase in funding” (Sommerfeld, Reisch 312). Nonprofits are currently overwhelmed with the volume of demand. The number of seniors, dual parent families, single parents and grandparents who have formal or informal custody of their grandchildren has drastically increased since PRWORA (Sommerfeld, Reisch 305). In addition, the duration of people’s use of these services has increased. Nonprofits are doing their best to meet these new demands, but staffs are burnt out by the higher number of caseloads, extra and nontraditional hours and lack of sufficient funding (Sommerfeld, Reisch 306).

All of this would be doable if it was done in order to meet the goals of the nonprofit, but PRWORA has pushed nonprofits to restructure in accordance with its legislation. In particular, the emphasis on work requirements has forced nonprofits to focus on work-oriented programs instead of their original goals. Also, there is a newfound emphasis on numerical outcomes, data and evaluation measures rather than actual results for recipients. One of my colleagues has noted that “it has gotten to the point where this is not a social service agency any more. [It] more closely resembles a business” (Sommerfeld, Reisch 308). In regards to this, President Clinton should realize that if he wants to run the government like a business he has to be wary of focusing too much on quarterly earnings such as welfare cuts for risk of sacrificing the long term growth of the country and its citizens.


Sommerfeld, David, and Michael Reisch. “Unintended Consequences: The Impact of Welfare Reform in the United States on NGOs.” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 14.3 (2003): 299-320. Print.

Suppan, Steve. Eye on America: Social Watch, 1997–2004. Publication. Minneapolis: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 2005. Print.

Photo Source:

Stevens, Mick. “We Used to Feel Your Pain, but That’s No Longer Our Policy.” Cartoon. New York: New Yorker, 1995.

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