Welfare as we knew it ended on August 22, 1996, when President
Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity
Reconciliation Act, ending the Aid to Families with Dependent Children
(AFDC) program and its guarantee of federal cash assistance for
As the effects of the new law begin to be felt, University of Chicago
researchers from several disciplines are unearthing more comprehensive
data on its practical implications: visiting local welfare agencies,
creating databases, interviewing working mothers, tracking down
fathers, and asking tough questions about poverty and inequality.
Its too early to know for certain whether or not the poor
have benefited from the 1996 law, say the researchers, especially
when, given the tight labor market and strong economy, the new system
has yet to be truly tested. But their initial findings suggest that
true welfare reform may only be just beginningthat the only
thing constant about the nations welfare policy may, in fact,
Welfare policies have been evolving for 200 years,
notes Susan Mayer, an associate professor in the Harris School and
director of the Northwestern University/University of Chicago Joint
Center for Poverty Research. Its a pendulum that swings
back and forth. Welfare reform may help a third or half of the people
who were on AFDC. Another two-thirds or half might need different
programs. The policies will evolve. We are always reforming welfare.
The latest reforms require state governments to cut their welfare
rolls in half by 2002, but they do not tell them how to do it. AFDCs
replacementthe Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
programgives state governments broad discretion in how they
use lump sums of federal money, or block grants, to pay for and
administer welfare benefits. Each state is free to design its own
TANFmanagement program with its own incentives. For the first
time, those incentives may include cutting off benefits to adults
who are not working at least 30 hours per week after two years in
the program, who use up a five-year lifetime limit on benefits,
or who do not establish the paternity of their children and follow
child-support orders. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
(HHS), which oversees the federal block-grant program, considers
welfare recipients to be participating in a work activity
and thus meeting the weekly work requirement if they are actively
looking for a job, enrolled in a job-training program, working in
an unsubsidized or subsidized job, performing community service,
or providing child care to community-service participants. States
had until July 1, 1997, to begin implementing their TANF plans,
with many starting earlier.
Backers of the new approach hail statistics showing reductions
in the welfare rolls as proof that the stricter rules are moving
people off the dole and into jobs. Nationally, just under 8 million
people remained on welfare at the end of September 1998, down 44
percent from 14.3 million in 1994, according to HHS. By September
1997, all states, except for those starting their programs after
April 1997, had to have moved at least 25 percent of their adult
recipients into work activities or face financial penalties. According
to HHS figures released in December 1998, data collected from 36
states during those months show that, on average, 28 percent of
each states adult welfare recipients had found a job or were
preparing to work.
Critics of the reforms argue that the numbers reflect many recipients
who have left the system not for jobs but because the states used
the new flexibility to cut off benefits. They blame lawmakers for
not going far enough to resolve the new systems Catch-22s.
How, they ask, can the typical welfare recipientaccording
to HHS, shes a 30-year-old, single, African-American or Hispanic
woman living in a city with two children born out of wedlock, no
college degree, and a greater chance than women in the general population
to be a victim of domestic violenceforce an estranged boyfriend
to pay child support, go to work without adequate child care or
transportation, or find the time and money to get an education that
could foster marketable skills? Opponents of the new system also
point to recent HHS data that show welfare reductions beginning
to slow in some states, suggesting that those still on welfare have
the most complicated situations and will require more child-care,
health-care, and job-training support.
In his 2000 budget proposal, Clinton addressed some of these concerns
by asking Congress for $150 million for job training for fathers,
$430 million for housing vouchers, and $150 million for transporting
potential workers to job interviews. His budget also sought $18
billion over five years for child-care tax credits and subsidies
and another $1.3 billion over five years to restore health and disability
benefits and food stamps for the hundreds of thousands of legal
immigrants who lost coverage under special provisions in the new
For many advocates of the poor, these initiatives do not go far
enough, especially for families who face not only economic hardship
but also problems like mental illness or substance abuse. At the
same time, others agree with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman
Bill Archer, R-Texas, that the proposals go too far. The lives
of the poor and needy have been improved greatly, Archer told
the Associated Press in January. Now is not the time to abandon
what has worked to go back to the failed system of throwing money
at a problem.
Among those at the U of C who are trying to determine whether the
lives of the poor and needy have, in fact, improved is political
scientist Evelyn Brodkin, an associate professor in the School of
Social Service Administration and a lecturer in the Law School.
Brodkin, who has followed welfare policy with an eye on what she
calls the street-level bureaucraciesthe organizations
through which policy reaches its subjectshopes to provide
a Chicago-style, deep-dish analysis of the morphing
of the new law from rhetoric into action.
Formal statutes are where policies begin, says Brodkin.
But they tell you little about the many forms they take as
they are delivered. I look at public policy as it is converted into
action within the public and non-governmental agencies responsible
Last fall, Brodkin began observing the interactions among administrators,
caseworkers, and clients in Chicago-area welfare offices. Based
on her preliminary fieldwork observations and interviewsto
be detailed in a report due out early next yearshe says that
how the new laws requirements are applied varies not only
from neighborhood to neighborhood but also among caseworkers sharing
the same office. She has noticed variations when it comes to deciding
who will be required to work and on what terms.
For example, in areas of the city where jobs are more plentiful,
she has found that recipients are more likely to receive help finding
paid work, sometimes very desirable jobs. Where jobs are more scarce,
however, there is a greater probability that similarly situated
recipients will be channeled into other kinds of activities, including
workfare, which requires work without pay.
The complexity of the new law has profound implications
for accountability in a democracy, Brodkin warns. Discretion
is a two-edged sword: It can help fit decisions to individual needs
or it can yield confusion, arbitrariness, and uncertainty. Where
policy delivery involves discretion, it is a mistake to simply assume
the content of policy from its formal rules. It is important to
understand how discretion is used, the factors that shape its exercise,
and the practical meaning it gives to welfare policy.
Brodkins research on the implementation of welfares
new work requirements is part of the SSAs three-year Project
on the Public Economy of Work, a set of studies funded by the National
Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Open Society Institute.
In addition to observing the practices of neighborhood welfare agencies,
Brodkin and her collaborator Susan Lambert, also an associate professor
in the SSA, plan to use Chicago as an urban laboratory to map the
emerging network of neighborhood welfare agencies, community organizations,
and private job-training firms. Lambert is also leading an investigation
into the challenges of balancing work and family demands while in
the low-wage workforce. Ultimately, says Brodkin, they hope to explain
how the new welfare law is reshaping the possibilities for the urban
poor to negotiate the everyday realities of welfare, work, and family.
The procedures carried out by welfare-related groups tell
part of the story, explains Brodkin. They tell the extent
to which organizational arrangements and routine procedures within
them create opportunities or obstacles for poor families, provide
meaningful support for work or only supports on paper, and constrain
or create new pathways for individuals who are trying to do better.
Besides identifying kinks in the system carrying out welfare reform,
U of C researchers want to grasp the new laws impact on the
daily lives of destitute children and their mothers and fathers.
Robert Goerge, AM85, PhD88, associate director of the
University-affiliated Chapin Hall Center for Children, is particularly
concerned about how the most vulnerable children are faring under
the new lawthose children who have been abused, who have mental
illness or disabilities, who are juvenile delinquents.
What many experts predict is that the pressure of the stricter
work requirements could affect an individuals parenting and
result in the physical abuse and neglect of a child, he says.
If we can identify families at high risk for negative outcomes
for children, then we could target these families for additional
services or exclude them from the work requirements.
In an effort to identify those families, Goerge is leading a group
of investigators in four statesCalifornia, Illinois, Massachusetts,
and North Carolinawho will analyze the movement of children
in and out of TANF and other social programs, using databases developed
from the states computerized information systems. The data,
he explains, could alert state officials to any patterns suggesting
that children are frequently being taken out of families on TANF
and placed in foster care as a result of abuse or neglect.
The projects research team, sponsored by HHS and the Annie
E. Casey Foundation, expects to release at the end of April its
first conclusions derived from pre-reform statistics. In another
year or two, these will be compared to post-reform data on children
who have participated in TANF.
For the first time we will have a clear picture of under
what circumstances kids on public assistance move into foster care,
says Goerge, who also leads a soon-to-be-released study of Illinois
welfare reform and serves on a National Research Council panel advising
social-policy evaluators. This speaks to the issue of whether
AFDC actually did take care of mothers and children and if it helped
to stabilize their income so they could keep their families together.
How well the TANF program takes care of mothers concerns SSA assistant
professor Julia Henly. She suspects that the instability often experienced
by families on welfare will not significantly improve until the
debate turns to what makes the low-wage workplace, not the individuals
in it, unstable.
There was little attention paid during the 199495 Capitol
Hill debate over welfare reform to the competing role demands of
working mothers, says Henly. We could have had a discussion
about low-wage work reform that could have addressed changes in
the minimum wage, child care, and health carenot welfare reform.
In a chapter in Joel F. Handler and Lucie Whites Hard Labor:
Women and Work in the Post Welfare Era (M. E. Sharpe, 1999), Henly
reports her findings from interviews with mothers receiving welfare,
other low-income mothers, and employers in Los Angeles County. These
women, she found, faced numerous barriers to steady work and sufficient
income: two-thirds earned $9 or less an hour; two-thirds had jobs
that did not provide health insurance; one-fourth worked 30 hours
a week or less; and 19 percent did not have regular child care,
while most of those who did relied on relatives or friends. In addition,
she discovered, employers often had to lay off their low-wage, part-time
workers when business slowed. Henly would now like to build on these
findings with a broader survey.
If we expect women to successfully fulfill the dualand
often conflictingroles of mother and worker, the workplace
itself might benefit from significant reform, Henly concluded,
and a formal, more adequate system of support should be adopted.
Even more comprehensive information on the experiences of both
children and women under the new law is expected to come from a
four-year, $19-million study led by researchers at several universities,
including P. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, an associate professor in the
Harris School. Though Chase-Lansdale will be joining the Northwestern
faculty next year, she and a group of U of C doctoral students will
continue their roles in the study, which will detail the experiences
of nearly 3,000 low-income familieshalf receiving welfare,
half workingin Chicago, Boston, and San Antonio.
This March, with support from government and private grants, study
investigators began interviewing members of 2,800 families. Developmental
observational methods will be used to understand the environments
of young children, explains Chase-Lansdale, while ethnographic field-workers
will participate in the daily lives of an additional 170 families.
According to the studys preliminary focus-group interviews,
welfare recipients feel they can meet the TANF requirementsbut
only if they have more time to make the transition to work, receive
continued medical coverage, and get help with child care, job training,
and, in some cases, learning English.
As women and children make up the majority of welfare recipients,
its perhaps not surprising that their well-being is at the
heart of these major studies. But another, even less understood
group affected by welfare reform is the childrens fathersthe
mothers often-estranged boyfriends, husbands, or ex-husbands.