Welfare: In Serious Need Of Reform
Welfare assistance programs have been in place in America for over 75 years. Following The Great Depression, President Roosevelt created the Social Security Act in 1935 in order to meet the needs of the elderly and unemployed. The Act also provided funding to states for programs such as the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program in order to help children who were living in poverty (Streissguth 7-12). Welfare started out quite successfully, but for the past 17 years it has been a topic of controversy in D.C., and has been the focus of many debates.
Although there had been some amendments to the Social Security Act prior to 1996, there were no major changes in the program until then. In an effort to get people off welfare and into the workforce, President Clinton passed a welfare reform act in 1996 which he claimed was the “ending welfare as we know it” (qtd. in Streissguth 242). One of the major changes implemented as a part of President Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was replacing the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The TANF program ended unlimited funding for welfare cash assistance, and replaced it with fixed block grants for state-run programs. The new welfare system put a five year time-limit on how long families could receive aid, allowed states to deny people benefits, and instituted work conditions which required able welfare recipients to be working, or looking for work in order to continue receiving assistance (Streissguth 49-52). Just as intended, the PRWORA had a large impact on the welfare system by dramatically reducing the number of families receiving aid from the government. According to a report by social policy specialist Gene Falk, the number of families receiving cash welfare assistance dropped from nearly five million in 1994, to less than two million in 2012 (Falk 25-30). Although many government officials consider the PRWORA a success based off these statistics, there are many other factors that need to be taken into account when judging the success of welfare reform.
Numerous studies have shown that the 1996 welfare reform act was wildly effective at reducing the number of families receiving aid, as well as putting people back to work. What the studies do not reflect are the effects that the welfare system may have on families and children. Some people feel that the work requirements placed on single parents could have harmful effects on their children, particularly on adolescents. As single parents join the work force, many teens are left without parental supervision, and many of them have to assume parental responsibilities for their younger siblings. It is feared that the increased lack of supervision, and added stress of parental duties, can lead to poor scholastic performance and an increase of juvenile delinquency. Another concern is that although the number of single mothers receiving welfare has dramatically reduced since the welfare reform act of 1996, the poverty rates among children of single mothers remains very high (Dunifon 2). This may be caused by single mothers leaving the welfare system in order to work at low-paying jobs. Unfortunately, there have been few studies done to accurately evaluate the effects that PRWORA has had on families and children living in poverty. A report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities shows that under the AFDC program in 1979, 82 percent of families with children in poverty were on welfare. Under the TANF program in 2010 however, a mere 27 percent of families with children in poverty were receiving welfare (“Chart Book”). These statistics bring into question the effectiveness of the 1996 welfare reform plan and its efforts to reduce poverty.
President Obama has continually received criticism for the increase in welfare spending during his administration. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, the federal government spent a staggering $746 billion on a combination of 80 welfare programs in 2011; that’s a 32 percent increase from when the president took office three years prior ("Spending for Federal" 1-3). There is no question among those in Congress that the current welfare policies are in need of major restructuring; however, there has been much controversy over the type of reform needed. President Obama announced a new welfare policy in July of 2012 which has once again caused disputes in Congress. According to Factcheck.org, President Obama’s new policy allows states the option to seek a federal waiver from the PRWORA work requirements. The policy was created to give states the flexibility they requested in their roles of helping citizens get back to work. Many republicans have been outspoken opponents of the plan; Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign ads claimed that the president’s new policy would “gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements” (qtd. in Kiely, and Moss). Despite Romney’s harsh accusations, the plan provides states with the option to change the work requirements, not eliminate them. Even with the ability to seek a federal waiver, no state has yet attempted to obtain one (Kiely, and Moss). The work requirements that were appropriate in 1996 may not be as effective with today’s scarce job market and high unemployment rates. Perhaps the ability to seek waivers will give states the flexibility they need in order to help their citizens in these rough economic times.
The latest dispute over welfare reform is regarding drug testing. The 1996 welfare reform act permits states to incorporate drug testing into the welfare system; however, the guidelines are vague and have been left up to the interpretation of state legislatures. The subject never presented an issue until recent years. In 2011, the state of Florida passed legislation requiring all welfare and unemployment applicants to pass a drug test before they could receive benefits. The law also stipulated that the drug tests be paid for by the applicants, who would then receive reimbursement upon a negative result. Four months after the law was enacted, a federal court ruled it as unconstitutional because it violates the fourth amendment (Bloom). Regardless of the federal court’s ruling against Florida’s welfare drug testing policies, 25 other states passed similar legislation in 2012. The drug testing debate has also raised issues in Congress. A 2012 welfare plan proposed by Republican Congress members authorizes the states to mandate drug tests for welfare recipients, though the proposal failed to gain any traction. In the beginning of 2013, another bill failed in the House of Representatives which would have allowed states to drug test people who were applying for food stamps. The issue of drug testing in the welfare system has been at the center of debate between Republicans and Democrats since.
As with any controversy, there are many arguments both for, and against welfare drug testing. Proponents for such legislation say that drug testing will ensure that government funds are being spent the way they are intended, instead of being used to feed drug addictions. Ellen Brandom, a Republican state representative of Missouri, justified drug testing in a New York Times article by saying that “working people today work very hard to make ends meet, and it just doesn’t seem fair to them that their tax dollars go to support illegal things” (qtd. in Sulzburger). Although support has not come exclusively from Republicans, there has been a surge of Republican backing for welfare drug testing in 2013. In a statement to the Huffington Post, U.S. Representative Stephen Fincher asserts that “the federal government enables drug abusers a safety-net by allowing them to participate in the TANF program” (Brothers). Although it is difficult to prove, many people feel that such comments illustrate that supporters of welfare drug testing are stereotyping the poor as being more likely to abuse drugs than those not on welfare.
One of the most common claims of those who oppose welfare drug testing is that it perpetuates the stereotype that poor people are more likely to use drugs than the rest of the population. Many welfare recipients have complained that drug test requirements make them feel like being poor is a crime. Others feel like welfare drug testing is unfair and the government is targeting the poor just because they are poor. American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas program director Holly Weatherford explains that “we [Kansas] shouldn't require poor people to surrender their privacy so they can obtain enough money for the basic necessities of life” (qtd. in Rothschild). Some people have drawn attention to the fact that drug testing only focuses on a small part of a much bigger problem. Illicit drugs are just one of many things that welfare recipients could be inappropriately spending money on. In fact, studies show that there are significantly more alcohol abusers in the welfare system than drug abusers (Delany). Some people are addicted to gambling, or shopping or other costly activities, yet the welfare system makes no attempt to track any of these activities among welfare recipients. If the goal of welfare drug testing is to make sure that welfare funds are being spent on the things they are meant for, than the government needs to develop a non-discriminatory plan to track where TANF funds are being spent.
Aside from human rights arguments, opponents also challenge the effectiveness of welfare drug testing versus its cost. Communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida Derek Newton, points out that “not only is it unconstitutional and an invasion of privacy, but it doesn’t save money, as was proposed” (Alvarez). Instead of saving the government money by removing drug users from the system, states who have implemented welfare drug testing are actually losing money. The New York Times reported that during the four months that Florida screened welfare applicants with drug tests, a mere 2.6 percent of applicants failed, and only 40 applicants neglected to take the test. This left the state responsible for reimbursing nearly $120,000 to the applicants who passed the test, which is more than they would have spent on aiding those who failed. In all, the program yielded a net loss of roughly $46,000 in four months (Alvarez). Not only did Florida’s drug testing program violate the rights of those involved, it also wasted precious limited TANF funds which could have been spent helping families in need. When President Clinton announced the 1996 welfare reform bill, the country was a much different place. The economy was on the verge on an upswing, there were plenty of jobs to be had, and the United States was not at war. Over the past 17 years America has seen a tremendous amount of change and Congress needs to adapt to those changes; the welfare system of 1996 is not suitable to deal with today’s society. The federal government needs to take a hard look at the 80 welfare programs that are in place, decide which ones are effective, and abolish the programs that are not working. Additionally, further studies need to be conducted in order to better understand the impact of work requirements on children of single parents. Congress also needs to set new federal guidelines regarding drug testing; not only is it a constitutional violation to drug test people without any reasonable cause for suspicion, it has also proven to be a waste of money. Welfare is something that directly touches the lives of millions of Americans and it needs to be handled carefully. It affects the tax-payers who fund it, and of course, all of the people who rely on it to put food on the table and a roof over their head. Most importantly, welfare affects America’s children who are living in poverty. When President Roosevelt created welfare his intention was to help Americans in a great time of need, but somewhere in the long line of amendments and reform plans welfare lost its way, and something needs to be done to right its course.
Alvarez, Lizette. "No Savings Are Found From Welfare Drug Tests." New York Times 17 04 2012, n. pag. Web. 21 Sep. 2013. Bloom, Rachel. “Told You So: Florida’s New Drug Testing Policy Already Costing Taxpayers More.” 22 August 2011. Web. 20 September 2013 Brothers, John. "Drug Testing Should Be Applied to All "Welfare" Recipients -- Rep. Fincher Should Be First in Line." Huffington Post 05 03 2013, n. pag. Web. 22 September 2013. “Chart Book: TANF at 16.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 22 August 2012. Web. 16 September 2013 Delany, Arthur. "Florida Welfare Drug Testing Law Gets No Reprieve From Appeals Court." Huffington Post 20 05 2013, n. pag. Web. 21 September 2013. Dunifon, Rachel. Welfare Reform and Intergenerational Mobility. 2010. 2. Web. 21. September 2013 Falk , Gene. United States. Congressional Research Service. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Block Grant: Responses to Frequently Asked Questions . 2013. Web. 18 September 2013 Historical Development. The Social Security Administration. Web. 15 September 2013 Kiely, Eugene, and Rina Moss. “Does Obama’s Plan ‘Gut Welfare Reform’?.” Factchecker.org. n. pag., 09 08 2012. Web. 22 September 2013. Rothschild, Scott. “Opponents of drug testing for welfare benefits see it as hassling the poor; Brownback says it will help.” Lawrence Journal 21 04 2013, n. pag. Web. 22 September 2013. “Spending for Federal Benefits and Services for People with Low Income, FY2008- FY2011: An Update of Table B-1 from CRS Report R41625, Modified to Remove Programs for Veterans.” 2012. Web. 22 September 2013. Streissguth, Tom. Welfare and Welfare Reform. New York: Facts On File Inc. in association with Infobase Publishing, 2009. 7-12; 49-52; 242. Print. Sulzberger, A. “States Adding Drug Test as Hurdle for Welfare.” New York Times 10 10 2011, n. pag. Web. 18 September 2013.