How Welfare Reform Failed During The Great Recession

Republicans often tout the 1996 welfare reform law as one of the great bipartisan victories Congress has achieved. Welfare reform, however, has a checkered past, as it has resulted in a failure to get aid to the families and children who need it most.

According to a new analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) didn’t come close to keeping up with the substantial rise in unemployment that occurred during the Great Recession. In fact, according to CBPP, it took TANF seven months after the recession began to show any growth in caseloads.

When its growth peaked in December 2010, the program had grown by just 16 percent even as unemployment swelled by 88 percent in the same time period:

The rate of families with children in poverty that received TANF benefits fell in 35 states from 2007 to 2011. It rose in just five. The block granting of benefits to states, a change made in the 1996 reform at the request of Republicans, largely caused the negative change, since crunched budgets led many states to make their programs stingier than they were before the recession.


Social safety net programs should swell during economic downturns as they work to mitigate the effects of high unemployment and keep millions of Americans out of poverty. Indeed, several of America’s safety net programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, did just that. But TANF failed to keep up, making the recession worse for millions of families it could and should have kept out of poverty.