FARAI CHIDEYA, HOST:
It was 20 years ago this week that President Bill Clinton signed legislation to overhaul welfare and get more poor families off government benefits and into jobs.
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BILL CLINTON: We're going to make it all new again and see if we can't create a system of incentives which reinforce work and family and independence.
CHIDEYA: But things didn't go as planned. While many low-income families have become more independent, many others were left behind. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The goal of welfare reform was admirable - help poor families get into the workforce so they'd no longer need government aid. And the new program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families did work for many families, but not all.
KATHY EDIN: It turned out that not everybody could get full-time, full-year work.
FESSLER: Kathy Edin is a poverty expert at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of a book called "$2 A Day: Living On Almost Nothing In America." She says for those who couldn't find jobs, the safety net was frayed.
EDIN: Over time, the new version of welfare, TANF, became less and less responsive to those times in families' lives when work failed them, and so they began to become more and more likely to be living on virtually nothing.
FESSLER: One result has been a noticeable increase in deep poverty, which means living below 50 percent of the poverty line or on less than $10,000 a year for a family of three. More than 20 million people in the U.S. live in deep poverty today.
RON HASKINS: There is a group of moms and kids at the bottom of the distribution that are worse off than they were before welfare reform.
FESSLER: Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution is a longtime supporter of welfare reform. In fact, he helped write the bill as a Republican congressional aide, but he admits some serious flaws have emerged. The law allowed states to divert large chunks of welfare money to other programs, like foster care and college scholarships. And that's what they did, leaving less cash aid for the poor. Still, Haskins says, with job training, tax credits and other support, millions of families have moved from welfare to work and are now better off.
HASKINS: It's not a perfect system. It has some issues, but it's the best we've had for reducing poverty among prime age working families.
ASHLEY BRADLEY: This is my transcript from Louisiana Tech. I graduated there with a 3.889 GPA.
FESSLER: Twenty-nine-year-old Ashley Bradley of Baton Rouge is proud of her accomplishments. She's had a pretty tough life. She was raped when she was 11, which led to the birth of her first son. She had her second son in jail 10 years ago while serving a three-month sentence for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. When she got out, she applied for TANF to get her life on track and says it worked to some extent.
BRADLEY: If I wasn't as strong-willed, I would say it held me back, but being that I had a support system at the time, it really moved me forward.
FESSLER: Bradley says the only way she could survive on her $240 a month welfare check was because she lived with her grandparents, but welfare enabled her to go to school. She got a job as a nursing assistant and then as an office manager and eventually bought a house - a welfare success story.
But this past year, Bradley has had setbacks, including losing that house. She has a new job, but isn't sure it will pay enough to live on. She was just evicted when her first paycheck was late, but welfare isn't really an option.
BRADLEY: I wouldn't qualify because my income - even though I just make 7.25 an hour - when they calculate my income, it's going to be too much for the TANF program.
FESSLER: And even if she did qualify, she'd still only get $240 a month - the same as she got 10 years ago. Kathy Edin says that's a big problem. Benefits are so low in many states and worth a lot less than they used to that most poor people don't even consider welfare when they're looking for help. Many turn to food stamps instead.
EDIN: The main reason the welfare rolls have fallen is because people no longer come to welfare stores. They're not even applying.
FESSLER: Today, 1.6 million families are on welfare compared with 4.4 million families when Bill Clinton signed the law. When people do apply for TANF, they also face increasingly tight restrictions. The federal law imposed a five-year lifetime limit on getting benefits, but some states have reduced that limit even more. In Arizona, you can get welfare for no more than 12 months over an entire lifetime. Ashley Bradley says she thinks there needs to be some kind of middle ground for those people who are trying to work, but are going through tough times.
BRADLEY: They don't need no life-long benefits. That's a good thing that they cut that off. You just need assistance to get back on your feet because we all go through things.
FESSLER: She says for now, she'll press forward on her own. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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