Welfare Reform in America When Congress passed 1996 act overhauling public assistance, it looked to Wisconsin's welfare-to-work program as a model. But some say Wisconsin's falling caseloads belie a program that cuts off benefits too soon, leaving participants unprepared to reenter the workface. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports in the first of a three-part series on welfare reform.
NPR logo Welfare Reform in America

Welfare Reform in America

NPR Examines Effects of Emphasizing Shift to Work

President Bush receives a kiss from a woman who recently moved off welfare while in Chicago promoting the welfare-to-work project, May 2002. Corbis hide caption

toggle caption

This week, the Senate begins debate on reauthorization of the 1996 federal welfare reform act, which overhauled public assistance to focus on work rather than cash aid. Since the act was enacted, welfare rolls half fallen by more than 50 percent.

Welfare Facts at a Glance

» Between June and Sept. 2003, 26 states and the District of Columbia reported welfare caseload increases, while 24 states reported decreases. Overall, the national caseload remained essentially flat.

» Between Sept. 2001 and Sept. 2003, the number of households participating in the food stamp program increased by 2,064,112, while the number of families receiving aid from TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) fell by 62,239.

» Between 2001 and 2002, the nation's official poverty rate rose from 11.7 percent to 12.1 percent.

» Median household income declined 1.1 percent in real terms from 2001 to $42,409 in 2002.

» Between 2001 and 2002, the child poverty rate remained unchanged despite the recession.

Sources: Center for Law and Social Policy; U.S. Census Bureau

Even amid the rising unemployment and general economic sluggishness of the past three years, the number of American families receiving federal assistance continued to decline, according to a recent New York Times review.

Supporters of welfare reform cite these numbers in touting the success of the 1996 law. But opponents say other figures tell a different story: Poverty rates are up, and food stamp usage has surged by 35 percent over the last few years to 10 million households. Critics say falling caseloads reflect strict state and federal time limits on benefits, and not necessarily increased employment among former recipients. Republicans are seeking changes to welfare reform that would put more emphasis on moving people quickly into jobs.

In a three-part series, Morning Edition examines the state of welfare reform in America.

Wisconsin's W-2 Program

When Congress first enacted welfare reform, it looked to Wisconsin's W-2 program a model. Under W-2, no one is exempt from working, including the disabled and the drug-addicted. The state has succeeded in lowering its welfare rolls by more than 80 percent. But a study by the state after W-2's first year found about a third of people who left the program had income above the poverty level, a third worked below the poverty level and a third had no job. Since 2001, Wisconsin's welfare caseloads have increased by more than two-thirds. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports. Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Portland, Oregon's Steps to Success

When the 1996 law passed, Oregon convinced the federal government that it should be allowed to continue its own, more flexible approach to moving welfare recipients into the workforce. Participants in Portland's Steps to Success program receive extensive assistance with education, childcare and substance abuse problems, and are encouraged to take not the first but the best job they can. But Congress is now considering tightening the rules for moving people into jobs. Oregon officials worry that this, combined with declining funds for assisting welfare recipients, could cripple its programs. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports. Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Reducing Teen Pregnancies by Targeting Young Men

One of the goals of welfare reform was to reduce the number of out-of-wedlock births. Half of such births are to teenagers, and most of these young mothers end up on some form of public assistance. There's been success on this front: Between 1992 and 2002, births to unmarried teens declined by some 30 percent overall. NPR's Brian Naylor looks at one program in Maryland that tackles the problem by promoting personal responsibility among young men, as well as women. Thursday, April 1, 2004