How Welfare Reform Failed Families In Poverty In Two Charts

Bill Clinton signs welfare reform.

The Romney campaign on Tuesday accused the Obama administration of attempting to “gut welfare reform,” a charge that former President Bill Clinton — who signed welfare reform into law in 1996 — called “not true.” All the administration has done is give states the ability to experiment with new programs, provided that they still meet federal requirements.

In the meantime, Romney has been blasting around press releases noting that Obama was opposed to the 1996 welfare reform law, with the obvious implication being that the law was successful. However, the current welfare program, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is far less responsive to the needs of Americans than its predecessors. It fell woefully short during the Great Recession, getting aid to just a fraction of those who needed it.

As this chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows, in 1979, welfare reached 82 out of every 100 families with children who were living in poverty. By 2010, that had dropped to just 27, leaving many impoverished families out to dry:

These troublesome characteristics also pre-date the recession. This chart shows the drop in poor children receiving benefits that occurred between 1988 and 2003:

As the American Prospect put it, “At the heart of the worst recession in 80 years, TANF funds only reached 4.5 million individuals, or 28 percent of those living in poverty. By contrast, in 1995, the old welfare system covered 13.5 million individuals, or 75 percent of those living in poverty.” This drop occurred for a host of reasons, several of them tied to the 1996 law.

The social safety net is supposed to be available for those who need it during an economic emergency, and TANF was simply inadequate for the task at hand. But this hasn’t warranted any campaign trail discussion.