Welfare to work doesn't work – without work

Welfare to work reformis 15 years old. It doesn't work well in a poor economy.

Louie Balukoff/AP/File
Donna Umphreys works on homework with Charles (left) and Ashley as husband Tim looks on in this 2005 file photo. The family of six in Olympia, Wash., face the end of their welfare benefits under the state's five-year cap. As the economy has soured, so have the results of America's welfare to work reform.

There have been a number of posts and articles on the 1996 welfare reform law (TANF—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), as it turned 15 last week. I argued that it’s a fair weather ship, performing far better amidst strong labor demand, foundering otherwise. My CBPP colleague Donna Pavetti posts some compelling evidence in that regard here too.

Rep. Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, feels differently. He released a statement including this point:

“Welfare reform has worked to reduce dependence by promoting work, as intended. But the job is not finished. Not only are more reforms needed to ensure that all families on welfare can and do prepare for work, but other programs can and should be reformed to follow suit. Welfare reform proved that low-income families want to work and support themselves. We ought to build on those successes by taking steps to ensure that government programs support and not undermine that enduring American work ethic.”

Now, look at this trend in employment rates—share of the group with jobs—for low-income single moms (family income below two times the poverty level) from 1995 to 2009. If Rep. Camp had made this statement in 1999, he might have had a case. But since then, the share of low-income single moms with jobs has consistently fallen, and, given a welfare program now conditioned on work, the safety net failed to adequately catch them and their kids.

His whole statement is pure “supply-side” as if promoting work, wanting to work, being prepared to work, gets you a job. In fact, when the strong demand side conditions of the latter 1990s faded, the fair-weather ship of welfare to work hit the shoals.

I bolded the last line of his statement, however, because there’s a way you can read it that actually makes sense. I happen to think he’s right that families want to support themselves, but go ahead and make all the rules in the world in all the safety net programs we have: if there are not enough jobs for people, they won’t be able to support themselves or their families through work.

In this regard, ensuring “that gov’t programs support…that enduring American work ethic” means making sure people have jobs. It so happens there’s a great way to do that—a jobs program from the Recovery Act that was highly successful in helping the TANF population find work—read about it here.

If Rep. Camp and others want to preserve the work ethic, they’re going to need to help create some work.

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