Desperate single mothers are mugging illegal aliens, shoplifting, and fencing stolen goods in order to survive, and it’s all the fault of those heartless Republicans and spineless Democrats who passed the 1996 welfare reform law. Such, at least, is the message of a front-page article in the New York Times, the first salvo in a likely campaign to roll back the most successful federal law in recent memory.
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) limited federal welfare payments to five years and conditioned them on a recipient’s effort to find work—in essence, stripping welfare of its entitlement status. As a result, the welfare rolls dropped two-thirds from 1996 to 2009, work rates of never-married mothers surged, and black child poverty fell to its lowest level ever.
But according to Times reporter Jason DeParle, TANF has not performed as it should have during the recession. Rather than skyrocketing, the welfare rolls have risen “only” 15 percent since 2007, and still remain 68 percent below their pre-reform peak. Some people, of course, would see the relative stability in welfare usage as a sign of success—proof that TANF has permanently discouraged at least one form of dependency. Not DeParle, however, who tries to show that the law has resulted in severe hardship for single mothers at the bottom of the economic ladder, forcing them to turn to crime and other forms of hustling to survive.
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