The U.S. government has implemented a number of programs to assist those below the poverty line and those who have incomes just above the poverty line, who are referred to as the near-poor. Such programs are called the safety net, in recognition of the fact that they offer some protection for those who find themselves without jobs or income.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
From the Great Depression of the 1930s until 1996, the United States’ most visible antipoverty program was Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which provided cash payments to mothers with children who were below the poverty line. This program was often just called “welfare.” In 1996, Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, more commonly called the “welfare reform act.” The new law replaced AFDC with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Check out this video of President Bill Clinton’s Welfare Reform speech:
TANF brought several dramatic changes in how welfare operated. Under the old AFDC program, states set the level of welfare benefits that they would pay to the poor, and the federal government guaranteed it would chip in some of the money as well. The federal government’s welfare spending would rise or fall depending on the number of poor people, and on how each state set its own welfare contribution.
Under TANF, however, the federal government gives a fixed amount of money to each state. The state can then use the money for almost any program with an antipoverty component: for example, the state might use the money to give cash to poor families, or to reduce teenage pregnancy, or even to raise the high school graduation rate. However, the federal government imposed two key requirements. First, if states are to keep receiving the TANF grants, they must impose work requirements so that most of those receiving TANF benefits are working (or attending school). Second, no one can receive TANF benefits with federal money for more than a total of five years over his or her lifetime. The old AFDC program had no such work requirements or time limits.
TANF attempts to avoid the poverty trap by requiring that welfare recipients work and by limiting the length of time they can receive benefits. In its first few years, the program was quite successful. The number of families receiving payments in 1995, the last year of AFDC, was 4.8 million. By 2012, according to the Congressional Research Service, the average number of families receiving payments under TANF was 1.8 million—a decline of more than half.
TANF benefits to poor families vary considerably across states. For example, again according to the Congressional Research Service, in 2011 the highest monthly payment in Alaska to a single mother with two children was $923, while in Mississippi the highest monthly payment to that family was $170. These payments reflect differences in states’ cost of living. Total spending on TANF was approximately $16.6 billion in 1997. As of 2012, spending was at $12 billion, an almost 28% decrease, split about evenly between the federal and state governments. When you take into account the effects of inflation, the decline is even greater. Moreover, there seemed little evidence that poor families were suffering a reduced standard of living as a result of TANF—although, on the other side, there was not much evidence that poor families had greatly improved their total levels of income, either.