What Happened to Welfare?


When Clinton promised to end welfare, most Americans, according to many polls and surveys, saw AFDC as a Democratic program that had contributed to the spread of unwed motherhood and economic dependency. Clinton’s long-term goal was to remove welfare from national political attention so that it would no longer cost the Democrats votes. His effort succeeded. By 2000, when George W. Bush was running against Al Gore, the welfare rolls had fallen from 4.8 to 2.2 million families, and welfare was no longer an issue in electoral politics. That remains true today.

Clinton also expected that it would be much easier to win political support for helping poor single mothers if they were working, and the abolition of AFDC was, in fact, accompanied by a big increase in assistance to the working poor. In 1993 Clinton persuaded Congress to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which can now raise the annual income of a low-wage worker with children by as much as 40 percent. TANF also gave states money that they could use to support child care for low-wage workers, and many states did so. A few days after passing welfare reform in 1996, the Republican Congress also approved an increase in the minimum wage.

Many liberals felt betrayed by Clinton’s decision to sign the welfare reform bill and blamed public hostility to AFDC on racism, which was certainly a factor. About two fifths of AFDC recipients were black, and the proportion was much higher in the large metropolitan areas, where the most influential newspapers and TV networks are located. Nonetheless, racism was not the only reason for the program’s unpopularity.

AFDC was at odds with three widely shared American views. First, instead of encouraging unmarried couples to marry if they conceived a child, it seemed to be rewarding them for not marrying, because marriage usually made couples ineligible for AFDC payments. Second, instead of encouraging recipients to work, AFDC reduced their benefits by about seventy cents for every dollar they earned. As a result, an unskilled mother who had to pay for child care if she worked was usually better off staying home. Third, AFDC seldom paid recipients enough to cover even the most basic expenses. As a result, most mothers supplemented their benefits by working “off the books” and getting money under the table from boyfriends or relatives.1 A program that encouraged unwed motherhood, idleness, and dishonesty was bound to be unpopular, even in places where all the recipients were white.

AFDC had not always been unpopular. When the program was created in 1935, most single mothers were widows, so supporting them was not seen as subsidizing sin. Most Americans also thought that a home needed a full-time homemaker, so few wanted single mothers to work. AFDC’s goal was to help widows retain custody of their children instead of having to break up their family when their husbands died.

But by 1996 less than 2 percent of AFDC recipients were widows and 60 percent had…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.