The Start of Welfare Reform – Again!

The Start of Welfare Reform – Again!

© David Burton 2017

Welfare Reform

     The welfare system in these United States has spiraled out of control for the past several decades. In spite of pouring billions of dollars into its welfare programs, the United States has one of the highest “supposed poverty rates” among the world's rich industrial democracies. To a large extent, this high “poverty rate” is a result of the failure to distinguish between the "deserving" poor and the "undeserving poor". The "undeserving poor" are those who receive welfare, but, if welfare were not available, could get by on their own. We all know someone like that - someone who makes use of the welfare system, but who could make do without it – some much more than others. And then, of course, there are the outright scammers – those who effectively steal from all of us by getting benefits which they don’t deserve.

     When one considers all the resources poured into welfare, a mix of government spending, tax-based subsidies, and private social spending, the U.S. welfare system delivers much the same benefits as systems in other developed countries, including health insurance, pensions, housing support, and child care. In total, the amount of resources the public and private sectors commit to all these forms of welfare is huge: as a percentage of GDP, spending on health and welfare in the U.S. is greater than in most advanced industrial countries. In spite of this, it’s questionable if we get the most bang for the buck. Today in America, we have what’s been labeled a “welfare industry”. A report from the Carleson Center for Public Policy in 2013, charged that “The federal government has spawned a vast array of redundant, overlapping and poorly targeted assistance programs.” The report counted 157 means-tested programs intended to alleviate poverty. There were more than 40 housing programs, more than 20 nutrition programs, almost as many employment/training and health programs, and lesser numbers of cash assistance, community development, and disability programs. More expansive definitions count even more programs — 185 in total.[1]

     “Total federal and state welfare spending {more than doubled} from $431 billion in 2000 to $927 billion in 2011. Both parties are responsible, but President Obama bears particular responsibility.  . . . Welfare spending increased significantly under President George W. Bush {but} exploded under President Barack Obama. In fact, since President Obama took office {and only through 2012}, federal welfare spending . . . increased by 41 percent, more than $193 billion per year.” (Ref. 1) On top of that, there is the total unfunded liability for Social Security and Medicare which in 2013, exceeded $100 trillion. And still there are many among us who clamor for and more welfare spending.

     Despite facing financial doom from an exploding federal debt, the U.S. government has continued to provide “welfare to ‘a growing number of people who increasingly are not ‘needy’ by any rational definition’ . . . {A}buse of programs supposedly directed at human needs {is} especially odious. There are people in need. In their name government is taxing away people’s earnings and wasting the proceeds.
     “. . . If the programs worked the amount being spent might not seem so excessive. However, {as of 2012,} the nearly $1 trillion spent on welfare amounted ‘to $20,610 for every poor person in America, or $61,830 per poor family of three.’ With that kind of spending, no one should still be poor.
      - - -
     “Unfortunately, over the years it {has become} increasingly evident that welfare {has done} much to discourage marriage and work, and destroy family and community. That is, behavioral poverty accompanied material poverty. The result . . . ‘has been the disintegration of the work ethic, family structure, and social fabric of large segments of the American population, which has in turn created a new dependency class.’ . . .
     “Yet the system is tenaciously defended by all of the usual interest groups which benefit from extensive federal wealth transfers. President Reagan argued that ‘The war on poverty created a great new upper-middle class of bureaucrats that found they had a fine career as long as they could keep enough needy people there to justify their existence.’ Officials may not exactly scheme to prevent the poor from leaving welfare. But welfare gives many people an interest in preserving existing programs.” (Ref. 1)

     There have been attempts to correct the problems with America’s welfare society. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, or the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 as it is sometimes called, is credited to President William Clinton and his oft-repeated campaign promise "to end welfare as we know it." The Act required work in exchange for temporary relief; no more than two years could be used before parents would be working or in job training. No recipient could have more than five years of assistance cumulatively.[2] The Act therefore required, among other things, that recipients - horror of horrors - work!

    ”In the four decades prior to welfare reform, the welfare caseload never experienced a significant decline. But, in the four years after welfare reform, the caseload dropped by nearly half. Employment surged and child poverty among affected groups plummeted.” [Emphasis mine] (Ref. 3)

     But, in July of 2012, “the Obama Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released an official policy directive rewriting the welfare reform law of 1996. The new policy gut{ted} the federal work requirements that were the foundation of the reform law. The Obama directive bludgeon{ed} the letter and intent of the actual reform legislation.” (Ref. 3)

     Now, in 2017, President Trump is proposing to reverse the unwise welfare policy of his predecessor. “President Donald Trump’s newly released budget contains a proposed food stamp reform, which the left has denounced as a ‘horror’ that arbitrarily cuts food stamp benefits by 25 percent.
     “These claims are misleading.
     “In reality, the president’s proposed policy is based on two principles: requiring able-bodied adult recipients to work or prepare for work in exchange for benefits, and restoring minimal fiscal responsibility to state governments for the welfare programs they operate. [Emphasis mine]
     “The president’s budget reasserts the basic concept that welfare should not be a one-way handout. Welfare should, instead, be based on reciprocal obligations between recipients and taxpayers.
     “Government should definitely support those who need assistance, but should expect recipients to engage in constructive activity in exchange for that assistance. [Emphasis mine]
     “Under the Trump reform, recipients who cannot immediately find a job would be expected to engage in ‘work activation,’ including supervised job searching, training, and community service.
     “This idea of a quid pro quo between welfare recipients and society has nearly universal support among the public.
     “Nearly 90 percent of the public agree that ‘able-bodied adults that receive cash, food, housing, and medical assistance should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving those government benefits.’
     “The outcomes were nearly identical across party lines, with 87 percent of Democrats and 94 percent of Republicans agreeing with this statement.
     “Establishing work requirements in welfare was the core principle of the welfare reform law enacted in the mid-1990s. That reform led to record drops in welfare dependence and child poverty. Employment among single mothers surged. [Emphasis mine]
      - - -
     “Unfortunately, though, welfare reform altered only one of more than 80 federal means-tested welfare programs. The other programs were left largely untouched. [Emphasis mine] Trump’s plan is to extend the successful principle of work requirements to other programs.
     “The second element of Trump’s plan is to restore a minimal share of fiscal responsibility for welfare to state governments.
     “As noted, the federal government operates over 80 means-tested welfare programs providing cash, food, housing, medical care, training, and targeted social services to poor and low-income persons. In addition, state governments run a handful of small separate programs.
     “Last year, total federal and state spending on means-tested aid was over $1.1 trillion. (This sum does not include Social Security or Medicare.)
     “Some 75 percent of the $1.1 trillion in spending comes from the federal government. Moreover, nearly all state spending was focused in a single program: Medicaid.
     “Excluding Medicaid, the federal government picks up the tab for nearly 90 percent of all means-tested welfare spending in the U.S. [Emphasis mine]
      - - -
     “One of the key lessons from welfare reform—now 20 years ago—is that both blue and red state governments spend their own revenues far more prudently than they spend ‘free money’ from Washington.
     “Efficiency in welfare requires state governments to have some fiscal responsibility for the welfare programs they operate.
     “The food stamp program is 92 percent funded by Washington. Washington sends blank checks to state capitals—the more people a state enrolls in food stamps, the more money Washington hands out.
     “A dirty secret in American politics is that many governors, both Republican and Democrat, regard this type of ‘free money’ poured from Washington as a benign Keynesian stimulus to their local economies. The more spending, the better.
[Emphasis mine]
     “The Trump budget recognizes that the food stamp program will become more efficient if the state governments that operate the program have ‘skin in the game.’ Therefore, it raises the required state contribution to food stamps incrementally from 8 percent to 25 percent.
     “By 2027, this would cost state governments an extra $14 billion per year. Half of the so-called ‘cuts’ in food stamp spending in the Trump budget simply represent this modest shift from federal to state funding.
     “The remaining savings in food stamps in the Trump budget come from assumed reduction in welfare caseloads due to the proposed work requirement.” (Ref. 4)

     The requirement that welfare recipients work if they were able was highly successful before the requirement was dropped during the Obama administration. “Participation in the food stamp program plunged by 85 percent in 13 counties in Alabama after officials required that recipients must work, look for work, or get approved job training, a state agency {said}. [Emphasis mine]
     “In those 13 counties, enrollment in food stamps dropped over four months from 5,538 able-bodied adults without dependents to 831 such recipients.
     “Statewide, a total of 13,663 able-bodied adults without children or other dependents were enrolled in the food stamp program before the change implemented Jan. 1, according to the Alabama Department of Human Resources . . .
     “As of May 1, that statewide number had dropped to 7,483, the agency said.
     “ ‘Based on the trend, the number of [able-bodied adults without dependents] recipients … is expected to continue to decline statewide and in the formerly 13 exempted counties,’ . . .
      - - -
     “. . . in 2009, with passage by Congress of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama administration allowed all states to waive the work requirements for food stamp enrollment.
     “This expansion of waivers led to a dramatic increase in the number of able-bodied adults without dependents who went on food stamps, from 1.9 million in fiscal year 2008 to almost 4 million by fiscal year 2010, and 4.9 million by fiscal 2013. [Emphasis mine]
     "The huge decrease in food stamp participation in Alabama isn’t the first time that moving from welfare to workfare got big results.
     “. . . Maine Gov. Paul LePage . . . enforced work requirements for food stamp recipients beginning in December 2014.
     “Within three months, the number of those on food stamps who were able-bodied adults without dependents declined from 13,332 to 2,678 [Emphasis mine]
     “Caseworkers in Maine attribute that huge decrease in enrollment to many recipients’ choosing to go without benefits rather than perform a minimum of six hours per week of community service, or other aspects of the work requirements.
     “{It was concluded that} If the federal government establishe{d} and enforce{d} similar work requirements nationwide, total food stamp enrollment would plummet in a few years, possibly saving taxpayers $10 billion per year or as much as $100 billion over the next decade.
     “{According to} Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation who specializes in poverty and welfare programs.
     “The federal government ‘should require constructive behavior’ from able-bodied adults without dependents if they wish to get food stamps . . . That means requiring that they ‘take a job, prepare for work, perform community service, or at a minimum search for employment in exchange for aid and assistance at the taxpayers’ expense,’ . . .
     “Some argue that such a requirement should be left for the individual states to decide. However, over 90 percent of food stamp funding is from the federal government . . . and it has ‘the right and obligation to establish the moral principles on which the program operates.’
      - - -
     “. . . work requirements ensure that welfare isn’t a one-way transaction; aid those who truly need help; decrease the number of people enrolled on food stamps; decrease the overall attractiveness of welfare; and save taxpayers money.”(Ref. 5)

     “Today, there are some 4.2 million nonelderly able-bodied adults without dependent children currently receiving food stamp benefits. Few are employed. The cost of benefits to this group is around $8.5 billion per year.
     “In December 2014, Maine imposed a work requirement on this category of recipients. Under the policy, no recipient had his benefits simply cut. Instead, recipients were required to undertake state-provided training or to work in community service six hours per week.
     “Nearly all affected recipients chose to leave the program rather than participate in training or community service. As a result, the Maine caseload of able-bodied adults without dependent children dropped 80 percent in just a few months. [Emphasis mine]
     “A similar work requirement for able-bodied adults without dependents, imposed nationwide, would save the taxpayer $80 billion over the next decade.
     “Even this would be a pittance compared to the $3.6 trillion the federal government will spend on cash, food, and housing benefits over that period.
     “The Trump policy is the exact opposite of so-called ‘block grants’ in welfare.
     “In a welfare block grant, the federal government collects tax revenue and dumps money on state governments to spend as they will.
     “Welfare block grants have always been failures. In fact, the Trump budget would eliminate two failed block grant programs—the Community Development Block Grant and the Community Services Block Grant.
     “Instead of block grants, Trump is seeking to reanimate the principles of welfare reform from the 1990s that emphasized work requirements and renewed fiscal responsibility from state governments.
     “Of course, the left adamantly opposed welfare reform in the 1990s. In their view, welfare should be unconditional. Recipients should be entitled to cash, free food, free housing, and medical care without any behavioral conditions. [Emphasis mine]
     “No wonder they have proclaimed Trump’s proposal to be ‘devastating’ and a ‘horror.’
     “Contrary to protestations from the left, the U.S. welfare state is very large and expensive. For example, federal spending on cash, food, and housing benefits for families with children is nearly three times the amount needed to raise all families above the poverty level.
     “But the current welfare state is very inefficient. . .
     “In Trump’s unfolding design, welfare should be synergistic. Aid should complement and reinforce self-support through work and marriage rather than penalizing and displacing those efforts.
     “A welfare state founded on this synergistic principle would be more efficient than the current system. It would reduce both dependence and poverty.
     “More importantly, it would improve the well-being of the poor who have benefited little from the fractured families, nonemployment, dependence, and social marginalization fostered by the current welfare state.” (Ref. 4)

     The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 “restructured the largest federal cash welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), by inserting work requirements and renamed the program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). As a result of the reform, within five years welfare rolls decreased by approximately 50 percent and child poverty dropped {substantially}. [Emphasis mine]
     “{However, t}he Obama Administration’s {2012} directive allow{ed} states to waive the TANF work requirement, gutting the reform of its most critical element and bludgeoning the letter and intent of the law.
     “In establishing welfare reform, Congress {had} made the core work requirements of the TANF program mandatory and non-waiveable; it explicitly protected the work requirements from any future Administration that might wish to weaken them. [Emphasis mine]
     “{But, T}he Obama Administration claim{ed} authority to waive the TANF work requirements through a legal device called the section 1115 waiver authority under the Social Security law (42 U.S.C. 1315). Section 1115 states that ‘the Secretary may waive compliance with any of the requirements’ of specified parts of various laws. However, this is not an open-ended authority. Any provision of law that can be waived under section 1115 must be listed in section 1115 itself. The work provisions of the TANF program are contained in section 407 (titled, appropriately, ‘Mandatory Work Requirements’). Section 407 and most other TANF requirements are deliberately not listed in section 1115 and hence are explicitly not waiveable. [Emphasis mine]
      - - -
     “If Congress had wanted HHS to be able to waive the TANF work requirements laid out in section 407, it would have listed that section as waiveable under section 1115. It did not. The HHS action to waive the TANF work requirement blatantly violates the intent and letter of the law. [Emphasis mine]
     “The underlying concept of welfare reform was that able-bodied adults should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving welfare aid. The welfare reform law is often characterized as simply giving state governments more flexibility in operating welfare programs, but this is a serious misunderstanding. While the new law (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996) did grant states more flexibility in some respects, the core of the act was the creation of rigorous new federal work standards that state governments were required to implement.
     “Under the old, pre-reform AFDC program, welfare was a one-way handout. Government mailed checks to recipients, who were not required to do anything in return. The new TANF program was based on reciprocal responsibility: Taxpayers continued to provide aid, but beneficiaries were required, in exchange, to engage in constructive behavior to increase self-sufficiency and reduce dependence.
      - - -
     “Despite claims from liberals that welfare reform would lead to disastrous outcomes, the welfare reform law was very successful. [Emphasis mine] Prior to the reform, AFDC caseloads had not declined significantly at any time since World War II. Within five years of welfare reform, the caseload promptly dropped by approximately 50 percent. As the caseloads plummeted, employment and earnings among low-income individuals surged upward. [Emphasis mine]
     “As welfare dependence fell and employment increased, child poverty among the affected groups also fell dramatically. For a quarter-century before the reform, poverty among black children and single mothers had remained frozen at high levels. Immediately after the reform, poverty for both groups experienced dramatic and unprecedented drops, reaching all-time lows.
         - - -
     “Establishing welfare on the principles of work and personal responsibility are key to discouraging long-term government dependence and helping those in need reach self-reliance. The 1996 welfare reform was a first step toward accomplishing this goal, and it helped millions of Americans escape dependence and poverty.
     “The principle that able-bodied adults who receive welfare should be required to work or prepare for work in exchange for assistance is fair to the taxpayers and helps those in need move toward financial independence. This principle should be strengthened and expanded, not undermined.” (Ref. 6)

     One clear indication of the need for welfare reform has been the undeniable evidence that many able workers are simply refusing to join the work force. “After 88 consecutive months of the economic expansion that began in June 2009, a smaller percentage of American males in the prime working years (ages 25 to 54) are working than were working near the end of the Great Depression in 1940, when the unemployment rate was above 14 percent.  . . .
     “The work rate for adult men has plunged 13 percentage points in a half-century.  . . .
     “. . . This . . . transformation . . . is largely voluntary. Men who have chosen to not seek work are two and a half times more numerous than men that government statistics count as unemployed because they are seeking jobs. [Emphasis mine]
     “. . . {Our Entitlement Nation} has made it a ‘viable option’ for ‘sturdy men’, who are neither working nor looking for work to choose ‘to sit on the economic sidelines, living off the toil or bounty of others.’ Only about 15 percent of men 25 to 54 who worked not at all in 2014 said they were unemployed because they could not find work. [Emphasis mine]
     “. . . The ‘economically inactive’ have eclipsed the unemployed, as government statistics measure them, as the ‘main category of men without jobs.’
     “. . . government assistance {may not} cause this, but obviously it finances it.  . . .
     “Largely because of government benefits and support by other family members, nonworking men 25 to 54 have household expenditures a third higher than those in the bottom income quintile {bottom 1/5th}. {T}hey ‘appear to be better off than tens of millions of other Americans today, including the millions of single mothers who are either working or seeking work.’ “ (Ref. 7) Clearly, a very large number of able bodied men have decided that they need not work under the welfare system put in place by America’s liberals and that they can live comfortably off the toil and sweat of others. Why work when you can get paid for not working?

     We here in America have spent the last several decades creating a dependency-inducing welfare industry. We should, instead, have been focusing on reinforcing a traditional emphasis on personal, family, and community responsibility. Government assistance should start only when private resources prove inadequate, and even then, it should begin at the local and state levels. The national government should be the last, not first, resort. Welfare hasn’t always been seen to be Washington’s job. It once was the responsibility of the states, but increasingly has been treated as a federal responsibility. Since the 1960s, when the concept of public welfare radically expanded, federal micromanagement and redistribution of income has grown out of control. The federal welfare effort simply has lost touch at the local level and is treated now as “a-one-size-fits-all” enterprise with little to no consideration of the ultimate consequences. It’s now long since-past the time to begin to push the welfare mess back to the states, to the local communities, to private organizations and to private individuals. Local communities, private organizations and private individuals are better able than the federal government in determining who really needs assistance and who are the cheaters. Taking unneeded assistance from private individuals, private organizations and even local communities bears far more stigma than taking “free money” from the federal or state governments.

     The American welfare system is similar to drug addiction – once a citizen gets a taste of it, it becomes almost impossible to give it up - some “free” food stamps here, some “free” medical service or prescriptions there, some “free” rides on the senior’s ride service, some “free” unemployment benefits when the recipient could have actually worked or sought work, some “free” housing subsidies when the person receiving the subsidy could have afforded non-subsidized housing, and the list goes on and on. We all know some of these individuals who have taken unfair advantage of the welfare system - ultimately at our expense! Their excuse for abusing the system? It’s “free” and I’m “entitled” to these “benefits”. By their rationale, if a person doesn’t take advantage of all these “free” benefits, then he/she is a sucker. Why shouldn’t one benefit from all of these freebies when everyone else is doing it? After all, it’s “free”. And once one gets started, it’s like trying to pry a rattle out of baby’s hands. It’s addictive. And, an addiction is very difficult to defeat. Any attempt to take away one or more of these “free” benefits raises the cries from the liberal do-gooders and the recipients of these freebies of: stealing food from a starving baby; taking away an inalienable right; throwing grandma off the cliff; being cruel and heartless; failing to combat poverty; etc., etc., etc. But, like just about any addiction, if the addict is to be saved, he/she must be weaned off the drug and there is never a better time to start than immediately. If not, the addiction only becomes stronger, the dependency greater and much more difficult to combat. America must start to give ups its addiction to all those “free” benefits now. In truth, all these “free” benefits were never free – someone else always had to pay for them and that someone else has always been the American taxpayer. Abusing the welfare system is nothing more than theft and the American taxpayer is the victim of this growing thievery. Let all those in true need receive the help they need and deserve. Let all others go out and work to earn the benefits of their labor.

     The current welfare system obviously is bad for taxpayers. It also is bad for poor people. Reform is desperately needed. The welfare system in America has been shown to be very expensive, very inefficient, and too easily susceptible by scamming by far too many. We all know one or more abusers of the system.

     It’s time to start the reform of America’s welfare system and Donald Trump has taken the first step - again! Let’s hope that the liberal, bleeding-heart, muddle-headed left doesn’t scuttle this much-needed action, as it has done so often in the past.


  1. America on Welfare, Doug Bandow, The Cato Institute, 25 April 2013.
  2. Welfare Reform Act (1996), Hamilton Cravens, Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society, Accessed 27 August 2013.
  3. Obama Guts Welfare Reform, Robert Rector and Kiki Bradley, The Foundary, 12 July 2012.
  4. Trump’s Food Stamp Reform Would Close the Trap of Dependency, Robert Rector, The Daily Signal, 25 May 2017.
  5. These 13 Counties Started Work Requirements for Food Stamps. Here’s What Happened., Christine Roe,
    The Daily Signal, 7 June 2017.
  6. Ending Work for Welfare: An Overview, Rachel Sheffield and Robert Rector, The Heritage Foundation,
    29 August 2012.
  7. Men dropping out of the workforce an ‘Invisible Crisis’, George F. Will, Boston Herald, Page 15, 6 October 2016.


  6 July 2017 {Article 298; Whatever_57}    
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