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On August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (hereinafter, “PRWORA” or the “welfare reform law”), which replaced the Aid to Families and Dependent Children Program (“AFDC”), the nation’s primary cash-assistance program, with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program (“TANF”), funded by block grants to states. PRWORA represented a dramatic change in social welfare policy in the United States. Among the many changes effected by the law in the nation’s social welfare programs were: (1) the increased authority of the states over cash-assistance programs for needy families, giving states flexibility in designing programs within the block grant scheme and significantly reducing federal oversight; (2) the establishment of work requirements for recipients of assistance who are able to work, to be enforced through work participation rate requirements in the states; (3) the establishment of a five year time limit on the receipt of federally funded assistance; and (4) the generation of about $54 billion in social welfare program savings, largely by reducing food stamp expenditures and benefits to immigrants. One of the most significant changes resulting from the welfare reform law is that welfare is no longer a federally guaranteed entitlement on which a family can rely to support needy children. PRWORA eliminated any entitlement to assistance by recipients, as well as the federal guarantee of matching assistance to states.

In 1995, just one year prior to enactment of PRWORA, more than 14 million children were classified as poor in the United States. Although the federal welfare reform law ostensibly sought to reduce the number of children living in impoverished single-parent families, child well-being received little direct attention during the pre-enactment debates. The goal of the reform was to increase self-sufficiency by promoting marriage and requiring mothers to move from welfare to work. A number of scholars and commentators cautioned, that as a result of the reform of the nation’s social welfare system, the numbers of poor children would swell. What would become of the children of poor families without the safety net of federal public assistance?

As Congress considers the reauthorization of the welfare reform law, critical reexamination of the goals of the law, its interconnection with the existing child welfare structure, and the impact of this intersection on the development and well being of children are crucial. Did the law accomplish its stated goals? What has been the effect of the law on children from low-income families? How might welfare programs be structured to work more effectively with the child welfare system? How can the interplay of welfare reform and child protection services be structured to enhance prevention over protection? In considering reauthorization of the 1996 welfare law, issues affecting children must take center stage.

Publication Citation

9 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 419 (2003)

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Family Law Commons