How Well Does Welfare Fare?
In 1996, Congress instituted a new system of government benefits to the poor, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). While this system is very complex and differs from state to state, it establishes clear goals beyond helping the less fortunate. One of these goals is to move recipients from government benefits into paying jobs. The success of this program has been debated and is once again becoming an issue as the economy enters a recession. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program fails to help the poor because of its discrimination against women, inability to create self-sufficiency, and destruction of many American families.

TANF was established in 1996 by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), creating a new welfare system in which recipients must work in order to receive benefits and instituting a two year time limit on continuous receipt of benefits and a five year time limit for total lifetime receipt of benefits, after which government benefits would cease (Lerner 1). The plan was to use these new stringent requirements to move people from welfare and into jobs through which they could leave poverty without government help. In this respect, the data shows TANF is a success with a decrease in total recipients, from 12,320,970 recipients in 1996 to 3,821,600 in September 2008 (“TANF.”). However, the bill listed specific goals, such as assisting needy families so that children can be cared for in their homes, reducing the number of parents dependent on welfare, and increasing the formation of two parent families, which have not been met (Lerner 1). By examining the circumstances behind the statistics, the evidence shows that this new system fails to achieve its goals and places hindrances upon those it should help.

One of the largest groups looking for government assistance is single mothers. For poor single mothers, day-to-day living is a challenging task. Mothers must find ways to support and care for their child simultaneously. Therefore, in order to work, mothers must find child care while they work. For this purpose, the Child Care and Development Fund was created to allow mothers to afford childcare while they worked (Vesely 39). While invented to provide women with the childcare needed, it provides very little support in a critical area, if any at all. In many states waiting lists for benefits were created because of lack of funding; these list varied by state averaging 24,000 in 2004, but they could be as long as 130,000 as in Connecticut (Vesely 43). Women on these lists have few options. They can pay for childcare, which would cost a large portion of their income or they can choose not to work, losing government benefits. In this way, the work requirements now place extraordinary burdens upon the neediest in American Society, making it impossible for mothers to make ends meet. Even women lucky enough to get funds must still find places to provide care. It has been estimated that in some states 72% of parents need nonstandard childcare, including special need care, night and weekend care, and sick child care (Lens 284). TANF created new responsibilities for poor mothers, but failed to provide ways to take care of their primary responsibility, their children.

In addition to problems with childcare, women face other discriminations in the work place. In 2004, women made 80% the earnings of men; in addition, many of these women worked in support roles, such as nurses and secretarial jobs (Appelbaum 258). The welfare system forces women into low wage service and support roles and does nothing to help compensate for lower wages, leading them directly into poverty rather than freeing them from it. As a result, parents continue to be mired in poverty and unable to care for their family, in direct contrast to the first goal.

The second goal of welfare is to encourage recipients not to rely upon government benefits and become self-sufficient. However, in practice, the welfare system leaves people working full time and still unable to reach the poverty line. In 2005, there were 4.4 million people working full time, but fail to meet the poverty threshold; even worse, many earned too much to receive the benefits that would allow them to have the basic standard of living (Appelbaum 206). In forty states, benefits are cut before workers earn enough to cross the poverty line (Lens 278). While these recipients no longer receive benefits, they still need them to provide for the basic needs of their families. It is difficult for parents to care for children when full-time employment does not allow them to pay all the bills. In fact, TANF locks in this poverty by putting work first. “Participants in the recently created Temporary Assistance for Needy Families… are strong discouraged by requirements set out in federal law from pursuing postsecondary education” (London 472). Without a high school diploma, the opportunity for promotion and high salary jobs decreases significantly, leaving recipients stranded in poverty. Many recipients struggle to survive in low paying jobs, but lack the means to leave them. A small investment in human capital of these workers would allow them to provide for themselves and their families without returning to government assistance. However, TANF does nothing to reduce their impoverished situation.

A goal for the TANF is to protect children in their home; however, this program tends to hurt their chances in life. If parents are unable to meet basic necessities, children are disadvantaged in many areas. Some of these disadvantages are obvious; poor children have little access to new technologies, better teachers, and many supplies that would allow them to learn necessary skills and better grades. However, others are more subtle. Sociologists Williams Sewell and Robert Hauser discovered that “parents, teachers, and friends influence educational and career aspirations of the child and that these aspirations become an important part of the status attainment process” (Appelbaum 199). As a result, poor children have little resources, but are influenced to believe that they don’t need them because they won’t be able to move up. Since TANF does little to help families move out of poverty, these children are often doomed to remain in the same situation as their parents. They, like their parents, must quickly find a job, no matter how low paying, in order to earn enough to survive. Another disadvantage faced by children on TANF is more direct. Economists have estimated that over fifty percent of a person’s wealth is inherited from his or her parents (Appelbaum 189). Wealth is important in increasing socioeconomic class because it provides safety in times of crisis and allows parents to save for their children’s future, such as college tuition (Williams Shank 97). As a result of TANF, parents are forced to take low paying occupations and discouraged from investment in education, which in turn reduces their opportunity to gain wealth and save. This puts their children at a disadvantage when competing for higher wage jobs. Therefore, TANF’s inability to move families out of poverty makes parents unable to care for their children as other parents can.

There are many solutions to these problems with the welfare program. One such solution is to encourage education rather than work first. The median weekly earnings for a worker without a high school diploma in 2008 were $459, compared to that of someone with an associate degree who earned $722 or bachelor’s degree who earned $1,115 per week (“U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics” 3). While TANF pushes recipients into immediate jobs or short-term training, it would be better served to give recipients an opportunity to go to college. This degree will allow them to leave poverty and stay off of welfare, while also decreasing the chance their children will need welfare assistance. While TANF has moved people from welfare rolls to work, it has failed to move many people from poverty. The problem is that supplement money is counted toward time limits and, as a result, after the limit is up people are left working for poverty wages (Lens 287). Many suggest that supplement assistance should not count toward time limits as a way to encourage employment and keep these jobs (Sard 9). This would reduce poverty, which should be the ultimate goal of the welfare program. These are just a few of the suggestions to help fix the problems in the welfare system.

The reformed welfare system has received a mixed reception since its creation in 1996. While it has succeeded in reducing welfare rolls and reducing spending on welfare, it fails to reduce poverty. There are many success stories of people who moved up in their careers; however, for those left behind, their situation is worse than ever. These include single mothers and their children. Instead of focusing on immediate reduction, it should look to reduce poverty for the long term.


Works Cited
Appelbaum, Richard P., Deborah Carr, Mitchell Duneier, and Anthony Giddens. Essentials of Sociology. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.

Lens, Vicki. "TANF: What Went Wrong and What to Do Next." Social Work 47.3 (July 2002): 279-290. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. SUNY Albany University Library, Albany, NY. 2 Apr. 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph& AN=7038529&site=ehost-live>.


Lerner, Jacqueline V. (Ed.); Lerner, Richard M. (Ed.). Adolescence in America: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2001. History Reference Online. ABC-CLIO. 2 Apr. 2009 <http://www.historyreferenceonline.abc-clio.com/?bookid=9781576075715&loc=604& format=entry>.

London, Rebecca A. "The Role of Postsecondary Education in Welfare Recipients' Paths to Self-Sufficiency." Journal of Higher Education 77.3 (May 2006): 472-496. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. SUNY Albany University Library, Albany, NY. 4 Apr. 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com.libproxy.albany.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=20280631&site=ehost-live>.

.Sard, Barbara, and Sharon Parrot.."Making TANF Work Better for Low-Income Families." Journal of Housing & Community Development 59.2 (Mar. 2002): 7. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. SUNY Albany University Library, Albany, NY. 5 Apr. 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com.libproxy.albany.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=6351921&site=ehost-live>.

"TANF." Administration for Children and Families Home Page. 05 Apr. 2009 <http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/particip/indexparticip.htm>.


U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 05 Apr. 2009 <http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/wkyeng.pdf>

VESELY, COLLEEN K., and ELAINE A. ANDERSON.. "Child Care and Development Fund: A Policy Analysis." Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare 36.1 (Mar. 2009): 39-59. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. SUNY Albany University Library, Albany, NY. 2 Apr. 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=36664751 &site=ehost-live>.

Williams Shanks, Trina R. "The Impacts of Household Wealth on Child Development." Journal of Poverty 11.2 (June 2007): 93-116. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. SUNY Albany University Library, Albany, NY. 5 Apr. 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com.libproxy. albany.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=26400292&site=ehost-live>.