07/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Bitter Fruit of Welfare Reform

The economic downturn is stretching the resources of families and individuals across America. Now, more than ever, we need a functioning social safety net -- one that helps families keep food on the table in times of crisis, while providing a toe hold to a more economically secure future.

Unfortunately, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), popularly called "welfare," is failing to reach millions of poor children and families. This program is supposed to act as the last line of defense for mothers and children with nowhere else to turn. Rather than let them fall into an abyss of poverty, homelessness and exploitation, TANF provides modest cash assistance, work training and affordable child care, all of which help parents get back on their feet. Without these humble aids, the outlook for poor families is grim.

Fifteen years after the "end of welfare as we know it," ever increasing numbers of mothers, children, and families are facing exactly that bleak landscape. Welfare reform has been "successful" in reducing the number of people receiving welfare. But this "success" is not because of a corresponding reduction in the number of families who are poor and in desperate need of these benefits and services; not because of a reduction in the number of families who are eligible to receive these benefits; and certainly not because there is an increase in employment for the women who single-handedly head these poor households. At its inception in 1996, TANF served 84 percent of eligible families; now, the program only reaches 40 percent of these very vulnerable women, children and families.

Legal Momentum examines the causes and details of this trend in its latest report The Bitter Fruit of Welfare Reform: A Sharp Drop in the Percentage of Eligible Women and Children Receiving Welfare. The problems with the current system are many: federal block grants to states that incentivize them to cut welfare rolls; state access barriers which make it unnecessarily difficult for poor families to qualify for assistance; misleading information designed to discourage eligible families from even applying; and harsh rules making it easy for program officials to declare children ineligible due to parental non-compliance.

TANF is due for reauthorization by Congress in September 2009. Reauthorization offers an important opportunity to make the program more responsive to the nation's poor children and struggling parents. Given that analysts are predicting a prolonged period of high unemployment, this discussion cannot come soon enough for the millions of American families facing the expiration of TANF or unemployment benefits in climate in which there are no jobs to be had.

Most people would not callously ignore a mother and child in need; we can not let our government continue to turn its back on the estimated 2.2 million women and children who will otherwise live hungry and hopeless in our midst. As a national priority, we must reinvigorate TANF, and ensure that America's poor families have a meaningful safety net and a true stepping stone to economic security.