Led by Columbia University’s Dr. Peter Muennig, a team of researchers tracked Floridians on welfare over nearly two decades. The researchers were interested in examining health outcomes in the time period after former President Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform bill — which hoped to shrink welfare rolls by tying benefits to employment, spurring low-income recipients to take steps to improve their financial standing — was signed into law. And they found that death rates were a half percent higher among welfare recipients who were pushed to find employment or face losing their benefits, as compared to those who received unrestricted benefits regardless of their employment status.
Muenning told Reuters Health that while some of the study’s participants may have successfully found employment and begun to earn more money, “others lost their lifeline and had to fall back on already poor family members and friends to eat and get shelter.”
Among the group that faced a time limit on their benefits unless they secured employment, significantly more people did get jobs. But Muenning and his colleagues found that few of those people actually made more money at their jobs than the total income that the other, unrestricted group received from their welfare benefits and other supplements. And half of the people in the time-limited group couldn’t find a job during much of the program.
The study’s authors noted that there needs to be more research in this area in order to draw strong conclusions about the health impacts of welfare reforms. But their findings align with other studies that have found that even though the 1990s-era reforms successfully shrunk the welfare rolls, they also led to a huge spike in extreme poverty. As the economic downturn has made the job market sluggish, the number of low-income Americans who need federal assistance has increased even as the availability of those benefits has shrunk.
Researchers have documented the serious health effects of other economic policies, too. Stringent austerity policies in Europe and the United States are literally killing people by limiting medical resources, pushing more people into homelessness, curtailing access to health care, and causing an uptick in alcoholism and depression. And the recent sequester cuts are already hampering cancer care, preventing federal agencies from conducting food inspections, and slowing medical research.