Journal Issue: Children and Welfare Reform Volume 12 Number 1 Winter/Spring 2002
The enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 marked an extraordinary turning point in U.S. social policy. The legislation is probably best known for having repealed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and for providing states with block grants to design work-focused, time-limited welfare programs. However, the scope of the 1996 law was much more extensive. The law made major changes affecting a broad array of programs that provide services to low-income children, including child support enforcement, child care, Medicaid, food stamps, child welfare, and disability benefits. The law restricted services to immigrants and generally reduced federal protections for individuals while expanding state discretion and flexibility in numerous aspects of social policy. Also, the law prompted new and intensified discussions about out-of-wedlock births, fathers, and marriage and family formation.
Opinions about the motivating factors for the 1996 law differ sharply. Some emphasize the antagonism toward poor families, minority women, and immigrants, or credit presidential politics and the need to "do something" about welfare before the 1996 elections. In general, however, the debates did not focus on how best to reduce child poverty. Instead, the debates centered on:
- Promoting devolution;
- Reducing government spending;
- Requiring work and imposing time limits for families receiving welfare;
- Promoting parental responsibility;
- Restricting public benefits eligibility for legal immigrants; and
- Addressing out-of-wedlock births.
In 2002, these themes may be revisited as Congress, the states, and the public take stock of what has and has not been accomplished since 1996. In 2002, Congress must reauthorize the block grants to states for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Child Care and Development Block Grant, and the food stamp program, and the debates will likely extend to other programs and policies affecting low-income families as well. This article seeks to contribute to the discussions by describing how the 1996 law changed the social policy landscape across a broad array of programs and initiatives affecting children (see Figure 1). For each program or initiative, key developments since enactment of the law are described based on evolving state practices, changing economic conditions, and new research findings. In addition, key issues likely to be before Congress in 2002 are highlighted. The policies that emerge from reauthorization will likely have a major impact on the well-being of low-income children—indeed, on all children—for many years ahead.