A “failed policy based on failed research”: The destructive legacy of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform act

Twenty years ago last week, President Bill Clinton signed a historic welfare reform bill formally known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

Image: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
 With this legislation, Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.” Ten years ago, he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times declaring it a success. Now, 20 years on, the transformation of the welfare system is complete, but the question remains: What kind of transformation has it been, and what has it meant for poor families in the U.S.?

A new report from the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at the University of California Berkeley finds that some key provisions have not only failed poor families, but exacerbated poverty, increased instability and worsened health outcomes for the families involved.

Let’s start with some important history. As of 1996, the year that the American welfare system was “reformed,” the existing welfare program, called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), had been in place for 61 years. It was a relatively simple program — if you were poor and you had children, you were eligible for a welfare check from the government. It began in 1935 through the Social Security Act part of the New Deal, and was amended in 1962 under the Kennedy administration.

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