House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's upcoming poverty plan will likely showcase the 1996 welfare law, which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) -- a block grant with fixed federal funding but broad state flexibility -- as a model for reforming other safety net programs. A careful examination of the record, however, indicates that the 1996 law's results were mixed and that if the goal is to reduce poverty, especially among the most disadvantaged families and children, there are serious downsides to embracing the 1996 law as a model. The record shows:
- A booming economy contributed far more than welfare reform to the gains in single mothers' employment in the 1990s, and many of those gains have since disappeared. A highly regarded study by University of Chicago economist Jeffrey Grogger found that welfare reform accounted for just 13 percent of the rise in employment among single mothers in the 1990s. The Earned Income Tax Credit (which policymakers expanded in 1990 and 1993) and the strong economy were bigger factors, accounting for 34 percent and 21 percent of the increase, respectively.While the booming economy helped many families move from welfare to work during the 1990s, the labor market situation is much weaker today. The share of single mothers without a high school degree with earnings rose from 49 percent to 64 percent between 1995 and 2000 but has since fallen or remained constant almost every year since then. At 55 percent, it's now just slightly above its level in 1997, the first full year of welfare reform (see first graph).