Dependency Isn't Dead

Dependency Isn't Dead

The 1996 federal reform of welfare was supposed to reduce dependency on government benefits, but that may not be happening.

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“Economic Success among TANF Participants: How We Measure It Matters” by Maria Cancian and Daniel R. Meyer, in Focus  (Summer 2004), Institute for Research on Poverty, Univ. of Wisconsin, 1180 Observatory Dr., Madison, Wis. 53706.

The federal welfare reform of 1996 produced a dramatic nationwide decline in caseloads and a chorus of self-congratulatory hurrahs in Washington. Cancian and Meyer, however, aren’t cheering. 

They focus on Wisconsin Works, a much-admired program that was launched the year after the federal reform returned control over the welfare system to the states. Wisconsin Works requires most recipients to work or take part in work-related training, but it also provides fairly generous benefits (up to $673 per month), child care, and health insurance. Based on their study of more than 2,200 randomly selected mothers who entered the program during its first year, the authors, who are both professors of social work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, say that the program by some measures did a good job of helping the women avoid poverty. Counting earnings and a variety of government benefits, three-fourths of the women had incomes above the poverty line.

But the real boast of Wisconsin Works and similar programs is that they reduce dependency, and that claim looks much exaggerated. The federal government counts as independent all those who receive less than half their total annual income from their state welfare program, food stamps, and Supplemental Security Income, the federal program for low-income people who are aged, blind, or disabled. By that definition, 70 percent of the women in the Wisconsin Works study achieved independence.

But that standard is too loose, the authors say. If independence is instead defined as receiving less than $1,000 in benefits from the three programs, only 26 percent of the women qualified. (The chief reason: Many continued to receive food stamps.) And an even more deflating picture emerges when the focus is restricted to the crucial subcategory of long-term welfare recipients, those who were on the welfare rolls for more than 18 months before entering the program. Only 17 percent of them achieved independence.

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