The Welfare Reform of the '90s Led to an Increase in Women's Voting Participation

The United States Capitol.
The United States Capitol.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) bill passed in 1996 and replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children, to "end welfare as we know it," according to then-President Bill Clinton.

With it came the five-year lifetime limit on receiving TANF funds, conversion of federal money for the program into grants to the states that they can then spend "flexibly", and work participation requirements to receiving TANF funds. This has undoubtedly contributed to making it more difficult for families in need to obtain assistance.

Welfare reform is an issue that people generally hold one of two views on. If you lean to the right, you think it went well. If you lean to the left, you generally think it left huge holes in the social safety net for people to fall through, particularly the most vulnerable in our society.

Regardless, one of the widely supported motivations for reform was to reduce anti-social behaviors and bring people from the margins into the mainstream. The basic argument was that forcing recipients to participate in the labor force would break a 'culture of poverty' by increasing self-sufficiency and reconnecting people on the margins of society to the mainstream ideals of a strong work ethic and civic responsibility. Looking specifically at women, some research has born this out, finding that welfare reform reduced women's binge drinking, led to declines in illicit drug use among women at risk for relying on welfare, and reductions in women's property crime.

In their new working paper, though, Dhaval M. Dave, Hope Corman, and Nancy Reichman have found perhaps some of the most surprising results of welfare reform -- that it increased women's voting participation from 1990 to 2004. Examining the causal effects of welfare reform on women's voting registration and voting participation, they found:

"..robust evidence that welfare reform increased the likelihood of voting by about 4 percentage points, which translates to about a 10% increase relative to the baseline mean. The effects were largely confined to Presidential elections, were stronger in Democratic than Republican states, were stronger in states with stronger work incentive policies, and appeared to operate through employment, education, and income."

While one could certainly speculate on reasons why voting participation was more robust in Democratic states (less voter restriction, how TANF grants were spent, etc.) their research shows that despite its failures in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable, there were some unexpected and beneficial effects that should influence reform debates going forward.