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  • The 1996 welfare reform law provides a pattern for how to successfully promote work. Tweet This
  • Work and marriage are the most important anti-poverty institutions. Tweet This

The core piece of the 1996 welfare reform—passed into law 20 years ago this month—was its work requirement. The reform changed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. For the first time, able-bodied adults were required to work, prepare for work, or look for work in exchange for receiving benefits.

Another aim of welfare reform was to strengthen marriage.

Three of the four goals of TANF address marriage:

  1. Provide assistance to needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes.
  2. Reduce the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage.
  3. Prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.
  4. Encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

Although opponents claimed that a work requirement would greatly increase poverty, the opposite occurred: child poverty dropped, employment rates among low-income individuals increased, and the TANF rolls were cut in half within about five years, plummeting from 4.3 million families to about 2 million. The unwed childbearing rate leveled off for a few years, and the rate of growth of unwed births slowed (though it continued upward and stands at more than 40 percent today).


Despite this initial success, however, and the fact that the TANF caseload has remained at a stable low compared to many other welfare programs, work rates among TANF participants are far too low today. In fact, TANF’s rolls are full of adults who are doing either little or no work activity. In 2013, an average of only one-third (33.5 percent) of adults on TANF fulfilled the work requirement (20 to 35 hours of work or work activity per week). Nearly 60 percent of adults were not working at all, performing zero hours of work or work activity during the average month.

Low levels of TANF work participation are due to two main factors. One is that state bureaucracies use loopholes to lower their work participation rate requirement or to artificially boost the number of working adults on their TANF rolls.1 The main reason for low work participation, however, is that the original work participation rate requirement was simply too low to start. The 1996 reform required only 50 percent of work-eligible adults to fulfill the work requirement, meaning that half of TANF recipients could be doing no type of work activity whatsoever.

Not only is TANF’s work requirement too weak, but welfare reform touched only one program out of the currently more than 80 means-tested programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and social services to poor and lower-income Americans. Most of these programs are void of a work requirement, thus undermining work and self-sufficiency.

Marriage and Unwed Childbearing 

While the initial goal of moving individuals off of the roles and towards work was very successful, the goals of strengthening marriage and reducing unwed childbearing were far less so. The percent of U.S. children born outside of marriage has continued its steady upward climb, although at a somewhat slower rate.

The crisis of family breakdown is complex, and efforts to strengthen marriage are needed from leaders at every level of society. Regrettably, few states used their TANF funding towards strengthening marriage and reducing unwed childbearing. In fact, less than 1 percent of all TANF funding goes to “two-parent family formation and maintenance.” To make matters worse, the rest of the means-tested welfare system is rife with marriage penalties.

The trends in marriage today should be of great concern to those who desire to promote a strong and prosperous society. Marriage is one of the greatest protectors against poverty. Children are more likely to thrive if they are raised in married-parent homes. Married men are more likely to stay in the labor force compared to their single counterparts, and they also earn more money than unmarried men.

Unfortunately, over 40 percent of children are born to unmarried mothers every year, and marriage rates have steadily been declining for decades now, particularly among those in lower-income and working-class communities. A welfare system that is hostile towards marriage only exacerbates these problems.

Going Forward 

While welfare reform was initially successful at promoting work, the reform effort fizzled too soon. It should have been just the beginning of a series of reforms. Even so, the 1996 reform provides a pattern for how to successfully promote work. The next stage of welfare reform should build upon this pattern.

Welfare reform’s goals of strengthening marriage and reducing nonmarital childbearing were also the right goals. However, state leaders must recognize the crucial importance of healthy marriages and strong families, and work towards the goal of strengthening both, rather than turning a blind eye to family breakdown. Community, business, education and political leaders should also come together to spread the message that marriage matters and to help promote healthy marriage in their communities.

The 1996 reform provided the correct principles on which to build. Unfortunately, since then we have taken several steps backward, as the rest of the welfare system balloons and most TANF recipients today are not working, while unwed childbearing is at historic highs. It’s time to regain that lost ground by moving towards policies that promote the most important anti-poverty institutions: work and marriage.

Rachel Sheffield is a policy analyst at the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.

1. See: LSC Redbook, Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, Analysis of the Executive Budget Proposal, February 2013, p. 18; and also: The Alexander Group, LLC., “Baseline Analysis of Maine’s Public Welfare System: A Review Submitted to the Commissioner of Health & Human Services," May 2014, p. 35; and: Oregon Department of Human Services, “Cash Payments: Job Participation Incentive (JPI)," January 13, 2012 (accessed July 18, 2016).