In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was reluctantly signed into law by President Clinton. PRWORA, welfare reformĂ•s rightful name, was overwhelmingly endorsed by a conservative Republican congressional majority. These would-be reformers legislated the demise of the federally-financed entitlement program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), enacted in the Great Depression. Given that era's social mores, its original target group, women with children and without husbands, was viewed as being modest in scale.
However by the 1960s this was no longer the case, and the program's numbers began to mount. To further complicate matters, AFDC was fast becoming identified as a minority program that promoted family dissolution. While pundits speculated endlessly about "root " causes of poverty, taxpayers had long concluded that little good would come of AFDC, save for the much-derided culture of dependency. (Also in welfare reformers sights was the much smaller General Assistance program, received largely by single adults, down on their luck. But as a state-financed effort, GA was not within TANFĂ•s reach.)
With PROWRA's passage, AFDC was out, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) was in. To ease the transition, the feds, through TANF, provided the states with a sum of discretionary money to be used on behalf of their welfare populations over a five year period. Few parts of the country had bleaker predictions about the success of TANF than New York. Democratic pols, left-liberal academics and think tankers amply represented locally saw it as a racist-inspired Great Betrayal.
Tales From the City
Between 1996 and 1999, the number of New Yorkers who received TANF and General Assistance declined by 35%, from 1.1 million to 656,000. As a share of the City's population, they fell from 15% to 9% of the total. This declining trend also occurred in each of the boroughs and, more remarkably, in each of the City's 59 community districts. Within the overall public assistance population, the ranks of General Assistance recipients fell at a much faster rate 54% than did those TANF, down 29%.
But the decline of the late nineties was not the case throughout the decade; the 1990s saw the City's welfare population literally go up the mountain and then down again. Between 1990 and 1994, public assistance recipients increased by 34% and by the end of that period accounted for one out of six of all New Yorkers. Though this occurred during the Dinkins mayoralty it was hardly due to a policy of padding the welfare rolls. Rather it reflected the local economy's dire straits. A comparable upsurge in welfare took place nationally in the early 1990's, reflecting the halting recovery from the 1990-91 recession. The first two pre-Welfare Reform years of the Giuliani mayoralty coincided with a modest revival in the City's economy and the beginnings of a welfare population rollback. As the local economy picked up speed over the next (post-Welfare Reform) three years, the drop in the rolls intensified.
What has happened to those who have dropped from the welfare rolls? No one really knows for sure. A considerable number have been picked up by SSI, a federally financed entitlement program which has a growing contingent of non-elderly disabled children and adults. But the safe bet is that most are in paid employment. Are they better off than before? This question is still unanswerable, though there seems to be little evidence of dramatic deterioration. One telltale indicator supporting this position is the post-1996 trend in food stamp usage. Still a federally funded entitlement program, food stamp recipients fell by 28% between 1996 and 1999. Hard times for former welfare recipients would be mean more, not fewer, recipients.
The Mayor and Governor Pataki were supporters of "ending welfare as we know it" from the get-go. But it is impossible to say how much of the ensuing reduction in the public assistance population on their watch is due to their tough-love positions, and how much is simply the result of the strong economy for which they bear little responsibility. And while great progress may have been made in changing the culture of dependency, it is nevertheless all too true that a considerable number of the poor are still with us. As 2000 began, over a million New Yorkers were on some form of public assistance (including SSI recipients), and more than a half a million of the working poor are dependent on Medicaid for health care.
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