Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

In the United States of America, according to government statistics, there are at least 6 million people whose incomes are composed only of food stamps. Shame on us, writes the author. (Photo: talkpoverty.org)

We (and This Includes You, Democrats) Have Blown a Huge Hole in the Safety Net

Peter Edelman

 by TalkPoverty.org

You can count on your fingers, and maybe a toe or two, the number of otherwise progressive public officials and policy experts inside the Beltway who want to talk about the gaping hole in our safety net for mothers and children.  Up to and including President Obama, the mainstream Democratic position on cash assistance for families with children is that we reformed welfare in 1996 and that the ensuing policy regime is a roaring success.

This is just plain wrong.

Lest I be immediately dismissed in what I am about to say (and the usual suspects will do so anyway), let me be clear that the main way to end poverty is jobs that result in a livable income, and the education necessary to get and keep those jobs.  The totality of strategies to reduce poverty also includes healthy communities and necessary services—including health and mental health services—child care, legal services, and more.  A discussion of welfare is not the same as a discussion of how to end poverty.

But one part of an antipoverty strategy is indeed a safety net.  And this is where people who should know better (or actually do) are averting their eyes.

Short history:  The old welfare system—Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC, which existed from 1935-1996—needed to be reformed.  It did not work hard enough at helping people get jobs and become self-sufficient.  There were 14.3 million people receiving it when President Clinton was elected and that’s too many.

In 1996, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) was enacted.  Just then, and quite unforeseen, the economy heated up and jobs became plentiful.   The welfare rolls plummeted and the number of never-employed single mothers obtaining jobs increased substantially.  But even then, because states had no legal obligation to grant benefits, about 2 out of 5 people who left welfare did not obtain jobs, and large numbers were turned away at the front door.

Beginning in 2001, the impressive numbers of single mothers at work began to go down, and now is nearly back to where it was before the 1996 law was passed.  But that didn’t mean that the TANF rolls went back up, because states did not extend benefits to those who were losing their jobs.  By the time the recession started, the TANF rolls were at 3.9 million.

TANF was absolutely useless as an antirecessionary tool.  Food stamps went up from reaching 26.3 million people to 48 million people, because there is a legal right to receive them.  TANF went from helping 3.9 million people to 4.4.million—and even reached fewer people during the recession in some states—because there is no legal right to assistance.

Here’s the bottom line: TANF is basically defunct in more than half the states and the percentage of children in poor families receiving cash assistance nationally has dropped from 68 percent to 27 percent.  In more than half the states, fewer than 20 percent of children living in poor families are receiving TANF.  Wyoming is the poster state.  About 600 people—4 percent of children living in poor families—receive cash aid in Wyoming.   Before 1996, with all of the faults in AFDC, the safety net at the bottom consisted of AFDC and food stamps combined.  The median income from welfare and food stamps combined was only half the poverty line, but there was a legal right to both.  No longer.

So, now 6 million people have incomes composed only of food stamps.  Stunning?  Who knew?  These are government figures and they have appeared on the front page of the New York Times.  A lot of people are averting their eyes.  Whatever the facts were about the success of TANF in the flush times of the late 1990s—and I think they weren’t so fact-based even then—the recession exposed the utter bankruptcy of TANF as a public policy.

This is enormously frustrating.  The minute the government gives someone a nickel we hear a chorus of aversion to handouts, a cacophony of complaints that these are people who do not want to work, a concert of disapproval of the character of anyone who would accept cash help (and now the disapproval extends to anyone receiving food stamps).

Of course we want to have a minimum number of people receiving cash assistance.  Of course we want to help mothers receiving TANF find work—and that help has to include child care assistance and health care coverage.  And we not only want to do those things well, which is not the case now, but we also need a safety net that is responsive to the individual problems and needs of the families it serves.  A properly designed cash assistance program for families with children would take into account the availability of work as well as the fact that recipients vary in their capacity to work.

It’s past time to acknowledge that we have blown a huge hole in our national safety net for the very most needy among us.  Shame on us.


© 2021 TalkPoverty.org

Peter Edelman

Peter Edelman teaches at Georgetown University Law Center and co-directs the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy and the author, most recently, of “So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.” Edelman also served as Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, until he famously resigned in protest after Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform bill into law. Edelman was a passionate critic of the law, which he characterized as “a war on the poor of the United States” and “the worst thing” Bill Clinton had done during his presidency.

... We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Filibuster Reform for Debt Ceiling Fight But Not Voting Rights or Reproductive Freedom?

"If our senators are willing to suspend the filibuster to protect our economy, they should be willing to suspend it to protect our democracy and our freedom to vote."

Jessica Corbett ·


As Senate Holds Guantánamo Hearing, Biden Urged to 'Finally End This Chapter of Injustice'

"Guantánamo is a centerpiece of the forever wars. It is a shameful symbol of racial injustice, torture, and violations of the Constitution and international law."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Unbreakable Solidarity': Kellogg's Workers Reject Contract That Would Leave New Employees Out of Benefits

"We're not willing to sell our souls for our future employees that are going to work side by side with us but not get the same pay or benefits."

Julia Conley ·


Trump-Appointed Judge Suspends Biden's Vaccine Mandate for Federal Contractors

"The reason that we proposed these requirements is that we know they work, and we are confident in our ability, legally, to make these happen across the country," the White House said in response.

Kenny Stancil ·


Rosenworcel FCC Confirmation Hailed as a Step Toward a 'Just and Democratic Media System'

"We're immensely pleased that the agency is being led by such a great champion of an open internet and of bringing affordable broadband to everyone in the United States."

Jake Johnson ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo