Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Welfare Rolls are Way Down. Is that a Good Thing?

Many of the families that come to Legal Aid for assistance rely on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) for support.   TANF is the federal cash grant program put in place after welfare reform.   It provides a meager income of $428 per month for a family of three, just 29% of poverty.   If the family also receives Food Stamps, they still live at about 50% of the federal poverty line.

Since the reform of welfare in 1996, there has been a dramatic decline in participation in the program.   According to a recent study by Legal Momentum, the number of families participating dropped from 4.8 million to 2.1 million.  See “The Bitter Fruit of Welfare Reform:  A Sharp Drop in the Percentage of Eligible Women and Children Receiving Welfare.

The changes to the welfare laws were designed to move families away from a cash payment to earning income through work.  If the drop in participation was caused by women getting jobs that paid a living wage with benefits, that would be a good thing.   Unfortunately, Legal Momentum found that most of the decline came from a lower rate of participation by eligible participants.   In 1995, 84% of those eligible got welfare.   In 2008, only 40% participated.  The decline was caused by program changes that created barriers to participation.

 The burden of poverty weighs most heavily on children.   Here in the District one-in-three children live in poverty.   Keeping poor families off the roles may reduce the burden on government budgets, but it does so at the expense of children.   Especially in an economy where there are few low-skills jobs that pay anything close to a living wage.

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  • Joni Podschun on Jun 22, 2009

    Thanks. This is certainly an interesting time to be keeping on eye on these issues, as the trend caseload decline appears to be reversing.

  • Jonathan Smith on Jun 18, 2009

    The District has chosen to use local dollars to avoid cutting off of benefits at 60 months, which is a huge help. There is still an enrollment problem because of sanctions, inadequate child case, inadequate work for persons with disabilities, etc. I don’t know of DC specific research.

    I enjoyed your post on Beyond Bread.

  • Joni Podschun on Jun 17, 2009

    It would be interesting to look at the impact of more progressive policies (not cutting people off at 60 months, partial family sanctions, etc.) on caseload decline. It seems like the caseload in DC has been more responsive to changes in the economic climate than, say, Georgia, but I’m not aware of any research that full quantifies or explains the discrepancies. Do you know of any?