NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Floundering Welfare Families

February 13, 2001

Measured by the number of families who have moved from cash welfare assistance to work, the 1996 welfare reform act has been an outstanding success -- reducing the caseload in half from five million families to less than two and a half million. The majority of families who have left welfare are better off financially, because the parent or parents are employed. But some families have floundered under the new program. And among those still receiving assistance are the most difficult cases.

Before 1996, adults with problems could stay on welfare year after year without having to meet any work or training requirements. But the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program limits the time families can remain on welfare and imposes sanctions -- withdrawal of cash assistance -- if work requirements aren't met. And some families appear to be unable to meet them.

  • Studies of mothers leaving welfare show that around 20 percent of them go through long periods without work and many more without jobs from time to time.
  • However, many of these mothers are likely to live with relatives or boyfriends who have incomes, but these arrangements may be unstable.
  • According to Urban Institute and University of Michigan studies, these floundering families often have multiple barriers to employment -- including addictions, disabled children, emotional illnesses, domestic violence, lack of work experience and poor education.
  • Experts at the Brookings Institution say the fact is that not much is known about how to help them.

Several states are developing programs to help these families, and Congress is likely to devote substantial attention to this problem before October 2002, when TANF is due for reauthorization.

Source: Ron Haskins, Isabel Sawhill and Kent Weaver, "Welfare Reform Reauthorization: An Overview of Problems and Issues," Welfare Reform & Beyond, Policy Brief No. 2, January 2001, Brookings Institution, 1775 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036, (202) 797-6105


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