Republican budget boss Rep. Paul Ryan unveiled a new fiscal blueprint on Tuesday that reprises many proposals the Wisconsin representative has offered in previous years.
A big part of Ryan's plan (and the plans that preceded it) seeks to do to federal safety net programs what Congress did to welfare in 1996: transform it from an open-ended commitment to helping poor parents to a limited "block grant" that states distribute as they see fit within a set of federal rules.
Republicans call welfare reform a success, citing reduced caseloads and declining poverty. As Ryan put it in the budget outline he released Tuesday, "Child poverty in single-female-headed households fell from 55 to 39 percent by 2001, which was the largest ten-year decline in poverty among such children since the 1960s."
One of the most important new welfare rules was for states to make sure certain percentages of beneficiaries found employment. "These reforms worked because the best welfare program is temporary and ends with a job and a stable, independent life for the beneficiary," Ryan's budget says. The proposal would take welfare reform policies like block granting and work requirements and apply them to other federal safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid.
But the success of welfare reform is debatable. While the policy change preceded the largest 10-year decline in poverty among children in single-female-headed households since World War II, that decline coincided with the longest period of economic growth in the postwar era. And poverty among kids of single moms has been rising since 2001, reaching 47.6 percent in 2011. And the early implementation of welfare reform, which renamed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program the "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families" program, happened at the same time as Congress boosted tax credits for the working poor.
"Welfare reform had the good fortune of being implemented when the economy was booming and after major expansions to the Earned Income Tax Credit were enacted into law," LaDonna Pavetti, a TANF expert with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Washington think tank, said in an email. "There is absolutely no evidence from welfare reform that would suggest that you could expand those reforms to other programs and expect the same outcomes."
Ryan cited a recent Congressional Research Service report that found "progress appears to have been largely sustained in both reducing welfare dependency and poverty among children in female-headed families, in spite of the recent recession."
There's no doubt about reduced welfare dependency: Even as poverty rates have risen, welfare enrollment has stayed low. Welfare recipients now number about 4.5 million, down from roughly 14 million before the law was reformed. A 2012 analysis by CBPP found that welfare reached 68 percent of families with children living in poverty in 1996, compared with just 27 percent in 2010.
The number of American households in extreme poverty rose from 600,000 in 1996 to 1.43 million in 2011, according to a report by the National Poverty Center. "This growth has been concentrated among those groups that were most affected by the 1996 welfare reform," the report said.