There has been a lot of discussion about the 1996 welfare reform initiative President Bill Clinton championed when presiding over a divided Congress. However most of that discussion has been in the context of Hillary Clinton, and not those most affected by the policy.
A new report from the left-leaning think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities catalogues just how much money goes to the poor in a new analysis of the program. Specifically, they looked at how the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant was being spent by the states. The reform in 1996 sought to give states more control about how to deploy this money.
In TANF’s early years, when the economy was strong and cash assistance caseloads were shrinking, states used the flexibility of the block grant to take some of the funds that had gone as benefits to families and redirect them to child care and welfare-to-work programs to further welfare reform efforts. But over time, states redirected a substantial portion of their state and federal TANF funds to other purposes, to fill state budget holes, and in some cases to substitute for existing state spending. Even when need increased during the Great Recession, states were often unable to bring the funds back to core welfare reform services and instead made cuts in basic assistance, child care, and work programs.
Defined as the “other” category, 27 states spend more than 30 percent of their TANF grant on things other than poor citizens in 2014. Of those states, 17 spend more than half on “other” expenditures. Georgia and Arizona each put around three-quarters of their TANF grant on things other than assistance for needy families.
What are these “other” things they can spend money on? “Under TANF, states can spend welfare money on virtually any program aimed at one of four broad purposes: (1) assistance to needy families with children; (2) promoting job preparation and work; (3) preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and (4) encouraging the formation of two-parent families,” FiveThirtyEight.com reports.
The CBPP finds that the impact of these other expenditures on real families has been costly. In 1996 68 out of 100 needy families were given cash assistance, and in 2014 it’s almost three times lower with only 23 out of every 100 families eligible for the benefit.
Still, some conservative-leaning experts challenge these findings, saying that the analysis discounts the work these programs funded with TANF grants do for people. “Children—in particular, those in single-mother families—are significantly less likely to be poor today than they were before welfare reform,” Steve Winship, conservative fellow at the Manhattan institute, writes in his own analysis.
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