‘Welfare Reform’ Poised to Exclude People in Need From Assistance

On April 10, President Trump privately signed an executive order entitled, “Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility.” The order charges federal agencies with the task of increasing the requirements of welfare programs, making cuts to existing programs, and allowing states more flexibility in implementing programs.  

To guide these efforts, the order lays out nine “Principles of Economic Mobility” to which each welfare program under the purview of the federal government is to conform. First and second among these dictates that welfare programs must reduce economic dependency by “strengthening existing work requirements for work-capable people and introducing new work requirements” and “promote strong social networks as a way of sustainably escaping poverty (including through work and marriage).”

The order professes to follow in the stead of the “bipartisan welfare reform enacted in 1996,” referring to the creation of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). The welfare reform laws of the 1990s set constraints on the amount of time one could receive federal aid and implemented work requirements for families as a condition of receiving aid. These requirements and limitations were thought to deter individuals and families from becoming dependent on federal welfare funds and to promote a view of work as a means of exiting poverty.

This line of thinking is especially prominent in conservative critiques of the welfare system, which view the current system as impeding economic independence and self-sufficiency. The executive order follows the reasoning of these critiques closely, citing the current welfare system as one that “delay[s] economic independence, perpetuate[s] poverty, and weaken[s] family bonds.” The system as a whole, the order claims, functions as a “trap” that keeps “many recipients, especially children, in poverty and is in need of further reform and modernization in order to increase self-sufficiency, well-being, and economic mobility.”

Many experts, however, argue that work requirements operate as obstacles to access for many, especially by excluding individuals who would otherwise benefit from welfare programs from enrolling in them.

Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said in an emailed statement, “We know that people work when they can. We know that work requirements make poverty worse. We know that homelessness is more expensive than housing and services. Trump’s order will cost us, as a society, more and leave many of our community members worse off. How is one supposed to maintain a job without a place to live, food to eat, or access to healthcare?”

A study done by the Congressional Research Service in 2014 found that the improvements in workforce participation by TANF recipients was “modest” and that “the TANF caseload reduction generally resulted from fewer eligible families actually receiving benefits.” This means that much of the justification behind the executive order rests on a mistaken empirical understanding of the effect of TANF, as the reform of the 1990s depressed the use of the programs by would-be recipients, rather than promote departure from the circumstances of poverty for families.

Though the order has yet to influence policy formally, its stance seems to indicate more welfare-related policy movement on the part of the Trump administration. The order mandates that the heads of the Departments of Treasury, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Education review their respective policies within the next 90 days and provide the administration with proposals for change, including those that seek to reform existing work requirements or institute them in instances in which they do not exist. The likely overall effect of these changes will be to increase the barriers to receiving welfare and reduce the number of individuals and families currently receiving federal assistance.

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