The Evolution of Social Welfare Reform

By Peter Nielsen, HeLP Fall 2017 Student Intern

The first major era of social welfare expansion was born from the economic pressures of the Great Depression. This welfare revolution established a social safety net in two general areas: social insurances based on what people pay into them, and social welfare based on applicant financial need. Social security, workers’ compensation, and unemployment insurance form the bulk of the modern social insurance network. Welfare, on the other hand, consists of a broad range of programs such as Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for disabled individuals, and housing assistance.

These programs independently and slowly evolved within their original frameworks until a major shift occurred in the 90s. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 signaled a fundamental rebirth in how this country views and disperses social welfare. The ancient Aid to Families with Dependent Children program was not only replaced by TANF, but completely overhauled in terms of its structure. The primary concern ideologically had become that states were funding the program improperly to the point where welfare had become an open right for all applicants, instead of being strictly for the most deserving, hard-working candidates. The new TANF program became more exclusive, temporary, and available only to people at least actively attempting to acquire employment. The statutory requirements also essentially promoted not having additional children and only doing so within marriage. This reflected an ideological shift away from simply subsidizing the poor as an economic boost, to instead utilizing critical, limited funds for poor families in order to train and reshape the poor population. Some have even speculated the true objective of this trend is nothing more enforcing our society’s majoritarian values on the poor rather than actually enabling or assisting them. Aside from this new emphasis on what could be termed ‘deservingness,’ the new TANF statute also changed the landscape of welfare by placing directive power in the states, rather than the federal government. The new framework let states individually decide how to spend their funding, which meant states less supportive of welfare programs were now allowed to use their funds on a wide range of programs rather than giving payments directly to the full populace of extremely needy, eligible families. Initial studies of the effects of this welfare gutting reform actually showed a positive impact, but studies since the turn of the century have revealed this was merely an illusion caused by the general economic boom of the 90s. The downside of the constraints on universal access to TANF and its complicated eligibility requirements was exposed during the most recent recession. TANF’s strictly limited, slow reacting utilization as a safety net demonstrated virtually no stabilizing economic influence when it was needed the most.

The next major shift in our nation’s welfare programs arose in 2010 with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA). In passing this statute, Congress sought to support our population through expanding access to healthcare, mainly through Medicaid eligibility and a groundbreaking health insurance regulatory scheme. Requiring insurers to cover a more complete section of society, however, prompted a litany of controversial issues, from damaging the profitability of the health industry to infringing on traditional individual and states’ rights, as well as concerns that federal spending would become excessive. The plentiful controversies around ACA meant that, unlike the reform movements of the 90s, it would barely pass Congress, and it still faces constant jeopardy from the current administration. This administration has also announced plans to replace the food stamp legislation with a new, less inclusive law, more focused on deservingness along the lines of the 90s reform. This plan has already faced strong opposition from Democrats in Congress. This new emphasis on bipartisanship in social welfare reform means food stamps, the ACA, and at least a dozen other welfare programs face extremely unpredictable futures, despite their purpose of guaranteeing stability as links of our social safety net. With the current state of national politics seemingly as volatile as it’s ever been, the next few years are sure to be very illuminating on what direction our nation’s social welfare system will evolve towards next.