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The Personal Responsibility & Work Opportunity Act (1996)

Instructor: Vericia Miller

Vericia has a masters in criminal justice.

In this lesson, you will learn more about welfare reform, including some of the programs that have been established as a result. You will also learn more about how this act has evolved from 1996 to the present.

Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act

Imagine you're a single parent with two small children. Your significant other decided to relocate to another state and no longer pays child support. You are having a hard time finding employment because you have no one to watch your children while gone. It's a pretty difficult situation for anyone to be in, yet we know that this is not so uncommon. What do you do? How will you financially support your family? Well, prior to 1996, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was the answer. This was a program that provided cash benefits to families who had little to no income. With AFDC a parent or parents would be means-tested to determine if they are eligible to receive cash benefits. How much a family would receive would depend on the number of children and other financial circumstances. Was it a good program? Was it effective? Well, that would depend on who you ask. While some believed it was what poor families needed to survive, others believed it encouraged dependency on the federal government and a continued cycle of poverty.

AFDC was not very popular on either the Republican or Democratic side of the political sphere. The common belief held was that it did not encourage working or upward mobility. With AFDC, the parent (usually a single mother), would receive a check in the mail. If the parent did get a job, no matter how minimal in pay, her cash benefits would either be reduced or removed all together. In 1996, then President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility & Work Opportunity Act or PRWOA into law. This was a federal law passed in response to concerns over government spending and dependency on AFDC. This is a law that garnered much bipartisan support (Republican and Democratic support). It is because of this piece of federal legislation that AFDC has been changed to TANF, which stands for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Due to the welfare restructuring, there were more restrictions placed on eligibility. No longer could parents receive cash benefits indefinitely. For example, the PRWOA require recipients to engage in work-related activities. It also places a time frame on the cash assistance each household receives.

With welfare reform and welfare to work programs, reciprocal responsibility is key. Reciprocal responsibility says that though recipients can still receive entitlements, they must also prepare themselves for work in the future. Apart of PRWOA was the welfare to work program. Now recipients are required to work within a specified period of time--24 months to be exact. They must also be involved in what's called work-related activities. This could be vocational skills training, a GED program, enrollment in a community college, community service activities, or job hunting. Federal law states that parents must spend at least 20 hours per week, sometimes more, in work-related activities. There is now also a limit on the length of time recipients can receive cash benefits, which is five years. These requirements and incentives did not exist with AFDC.

Though there were misgivings about welfare reform, it has proven to be quite effective in reducing welfare rolls. Within five years of the reform caseworkers saw a 50 percent drop in their caseloads. Government spending on public entitlements have also dropped by over a half. But once again, the success of the program will depend on who you speak to. Advocates for low-income families will tell you that, as a result of welfare reform, fewer poor families are being assisted. And families who are receiving help are getting less in cash benefits. The question is, how does the federal government provide assistance to those who need it most without overspending and promoting long-term complacency and/or dependency? There is no easy answer to this question.

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