Welfare Reform at 15

City Limits logoThe following is adapted from a City Limits Magazine report examining the impact of welfare reform on the city’s low-income residents.

President Clinton prepares to sign legislation in the Rose Garden of the White House Thursday, Aug. 22, 1996, overhauling America's welfare system. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Welfare reform became law 15 years ago this August, when then-President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Clinton pledged that welfare reform would “break the cycle of dependency” and return “dignity to our lives.”

The new law meant that people could no longer rely on public assistance indefinitely as it set a five-year time limit on benefits.

The rules governing the disbursement of federal funds were changed so that block grants were given to the states, which were charged with overseeing how the money was spent.

Most importantly, the law imposed strict work requirements on most welfare recipients.

The numbers look pretty good… Before welfare reform, one in three New York City households received public assistance.  And it was fairly easy for people to stay on the rolls indefinitely. Today, only about 350,000 city households (about one in nine) receive public assistance at any given time — a number that’s remained roughly steady since 2007.

More than 1.8 million city residents received foods stamps in December, 2010. MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

But the reality doesn’t add up: While many former recipients of cash assistance are working (though no one knows exactly how many have found steady work), many are only able to survive because they get other government benefits like food stamps, rental assistance or Medicaid — these are separate programs and have different eligibility requirements. The number of city residents getting food stamps passed a record high of 1.8 million last December.  And nation wide, the poverty rate has soared from a low of 11.3 percent in 2000 to 14.3 percent in 2009 — that’s an additional 12 million people living in poverty.

According to federal guidelines, more than 1.5 million New Yorkers live in poverty; about 3 million residents could be considered “near poor.” And the gap between New York’s rich and the poor is continually expanding — although no geographically. In a recent article highlighting economic inequality in the city, New York Magazine found that the richest New Yorkers live only .75 miles from the city’s most impoverished residents.

While government programs help many low-income New Yorkers pay their bills, City Limits says that these come with costs as well — both in dignity and in time and energy, as recipients of assistance are forced to navigate an inconsistent and seemingly hostile welfare bureaucracy.

Read the full report at City Limits.


MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, The Peter G. Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney Fund, Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, The Ambrose Monell Foundation, Janet Prindle Seidler, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.


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