Welfare Reform Leaving More In Poverty

Janell Ross: Janell.Ross@huffingtonpost.com Become a fan of this reporter


Sasha Mandel says she never imagined going on welfare. But her plans for a career and the independence she craved ran headlong into a pair of unforeseen developments — an unplanned pregnancy at 18, and the worst job market since the Great Depression.

In April 2009, freshly unemployed and devoid of savings, Mandel reluctantly walked into a state office in Phoenix to apply for welfare. Her caseworker was sympathetic, swiftly arranging emergency food aid along with cash assistance. But she was also clear on the limits of that relief: Under the terms of Arizona’s welfare program, Mandel could draw a welfare check for no more than three years.

That timeframe was about to get shorter. This April, cash-strapped Arizona tightened the limit on welfare payments to two years. Mandel learned about the change when she received a letter from the state in June. She was only a few weeks away from exhausting her benefits.

“That letter,” she said, “it just said to me that they decided to change the rules when the game for single mothers is already really, really hard.”

Fifteen years after President Clinton joined with congressional Republicans and affixed his signature to a law that “ended welfare as we know it” — imposing a five-year time limit on federal cash assistance for poor families, while allowing states to set shorter limits — the social safety net is failing to keep pace with the needs of struggling Americans, many experts say. Millions of single mothers are falling through the cracks, scrambling to support their families with neither paychecks nor government aid.

Welfare reform, one of the hallmark events of the Clinton presidency, was supposed to be a healthy tradeoff: Single mothers who had grown dependent on government checks would instead go out and work. The federal government gave the states lump sums of money, known as block grants, to create programs that would prepare, prompt and push poor single mothers accustomed to living on welfare into the workforce, providing job training, resume-writing tutorials and subsidized child care.