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What were you Googling twenty years ago? Nothing, because Google didn’t exist. Neither did electric cars or iPhones. Prioritizing innovation and research led to growth, transformation, and advancement in life-altering ways. We learned and adapted from need and efficiency. So, why do we not apply the same principles to anti-poverty tools? And what can we learn from the welfare reform of 20 years ago to increase our effectiveness today?  

What Did Welfare Reform Do?

President Clinton’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) initiative, also known as “welfare reform” marked the end of welfare as we knew it. And while we celebrate TANF’s accomplishments, our time on the front lines of poverty has shown us the limitations of this legislation in today’s landscape.

TANF was introduced as a federal block grant to replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Under TANF, states receive roughly $16.5 billion each year to assist families living in poverty with basic assistance, support for work-related activities, child care, and a tax credit. TANF offers flexibility in how each state uses the funding among services. It was intended to encourage self-sufficiency and stability. However, over the past two decades, its complexity created more barriers for people navigating a way out of poverty. As with many government programs, TANF increases dependency on services rather than self-sufficiency. We must reform programs like TANF so that the end goal is not just day-to-day survival, but a complete and permanent escape from poverty. As we look ahead to the next twenty years, we see three ways to transform welfare for the 21st century.

Eliminate Silos

Uncoordinated structures and outdated regulations limit service providers’ ability to organize programs based on actual client needs. Funding restrictions often limit the ability of non-profits to be as effective as they could be in offering services we know work to get people out of poverty. While well-intentioned, TANF increases rigid rules with small payoffs for clients. One example is the work requirement. While we know employment is the key to moving out of poverty, we count hours rather than counting clients employed at a stable job. Work requirements should focus on efforts that help clients find sustainable work for a living wage. Employment assistance must be accompanied by holistic, family-centered case management. Not the checking off of a requirement box.

Individualize Services

For example, current structures do not take into account whether the closest childcare center accepting a voucher is five or fifty miles away from a client. Allowing organizations to administer funding based on each client’s unique circumstances combats this common problem. When we meet with clients, we ask them what their hopes are. Then, they identify goals and ways to combat possible roadblocks along the way. They are the experts on their own lives. Hindering a client from taking control of their life keeps them boxed in by the parameters set forth by this “one-size-fits-all” approach. We have the opportunity to empower individuals and give them the skills to get back on their feet. We must allow them every chance to do so.

Bridge the Cliff

True reform means the end of the welfare cliff. This is possible by focusing on economic mobility and implementing a slow reduction of benefits. Currently, the system is designed to keep families dependent on benefits. Without a slow reduction, individuals are instantly cut off and spiral back to step one. For example, if a single mom of two children in Texas leaves a job paying $8.00 per hour for one paying $15.00 per hour, she could instantly lose her TANF benefits, which might include childcare assistance. A slow reduction of benefits over a few months allows her to build savings and become completely free of government support.

Looking Forward

These problems exist beyond TANF. The 80+ government benefits and services for low-income individuals cost around $1 trillion each year to administer. Reform measures are needed across the board. We laugh at the notion of using technology from the 1990’s but accept the welfare policies created in that same era. We know the time, value, and finances it takes to adequately serve clients. Let’s challenge the status quo and do something different. Twenty years ago, the world we live in today would seem almost impossible. But it wasn’t. Why? A commitment to adapt and innovate. Ending poverty isn’t impossible either. We’ve seen it.