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Journal Issue: Children and Welfare Reform Volume 12 Number 1 Winter/Spring 2002

The 1996 Welfare Law: Key Elements and Reauthorization Issues Affecting Children
Mark H. Greenberg Jodie Levin-Epstein Rutledge Q. Hutson Theodora J. Ooms Rachel Schumacher Vicki Turetsky David M. Engstrom


The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 changed the social policy landscape for children in many ways. It replaced the prior welfare program with block grants to the states entitled Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and modified a broad array of other programs and initiatives affecting low-income children. This article describes the key themes dominating the debate over welfare reform in 1996, specifically:

  • Increased state discretion in program design, leading to more variability in states' eligibility requirements and services provided to low-income families;

  • More stringent work requirements even for parents of very young children;

  • Time limits on the use of federal funds for cash assistance, and a strong focus on caseload reduction;

  • Increased emphasis on parental responsibility, with stronger child support requirements; and

  • Increased emphasis on reducing out-of-wedlock births, including bonuses to states with the largest reductions, and special requirements for unmarried teen parents who seek welfare.

Although child well-being received little attention during the congressional debates in 1996, the authors conclude with the hope that improving child outcomes and child well-being will emerge as a key theme when the law is reauthorized in 2002.