Last updated on: 10/5/2007 | Author:

Has Welfare Reform Helped Poor Women Improve Their Lives?

General Reference (not clearly pro or con)

The Administration for Children & Families (ACF), a division of the US Department of Health & Human Services listed the information about the 1996 welfare reform on its website (accessed Mar. 27, 2006):

“‘The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996’ (PRWORA)… is the welfare reform law that established the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. TANF is a block grant program designed to make dramatic reforms to the nation’s welfare system by moving recipients into work and turning welfare into a program of temporary assistance…

The four purposes of TANF are:

  • assisting needy families so that children can be cared for in their own homes
  • reducing the dependency of needy parents by promoting job preparation, work and marriage
  • preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies
  • encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.”
Mar. 27, 2006 - Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA)

PRO (yes)


Christopher Jencks, Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, was quoted in The American Prospect on July 15, 2002:

“[P]eople who claimed that PRWORA would cause a lot of suffering no longer have much credibility with middle-of-the-road legislators, who see welfare reform as an extraordinary success…

The proportion of single mothers who had worked at some point during the year rose from 73 percent in 1995 to 84 percent in 2000, while the proportion who had worked throughout the year rose from 48 percent to 60 percent…

More aggressive child-support enforcement has increased some working mothers’ incomes even further. Extending Medicaid coverage to some of the working poor has also reduced some mothers’ out-of-pocket medical spending, although much remains to be done in this regard…

Furthermore, the spread of single-parent families has stopped. The proportion of mothers raising children without a husband had increased steadily between 1960 and 1996… But after March 1997, the proportion began to fall… [cutting] the number of single mothers by half a million.”

July 15, 2002


The National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) in its Feb. 2002 Policy Report No. 251 published a report titled “Gaining Ground: Women, Welfare Reform and Work,” written by June E. O’Neill and M. Anne Hill, which stated:

“Between passage of the [PRWORA] and June 2001, the number of families on welfare declined by 53 percent… The decline in welfare participation was largest for groups of single mothers commonly thought to be the most disadvantaged… TANF accounts for much of these gains: 40 percent of the increase in work participation among single mothers who are high school dropouts, 71 percent of the increase in work participation among 18-29 year old single mothers, and 83 percent of the increase in work participation among black single mothers…

The results strongly suggest that the positive news of the last few years is primarily the result of implementation of the welfare reforms in PRWORA… Single mothers have entered the workforce nearly as quickly as they have left the welfare rolls, resulting in an impressive increase in their work participation…

Contrary to the fears of critics that they would be left behind, in many instances they have made the largest changes… The combination of welfare reform and a tight labor market has enabled a very large number of single mothers to gain work experience. Earnings rise with work experience and this relation is as true for former welfare recipients as it is for others. As experience and earnings rise, the less likely a woman is to slide back to welfare.”

Feb. 2002

CON (no)


The American Psychological Association (APA) published in 1998 a position paper from the Task Force on Women, Poverty, and Public Assistance, titled “Making Welfare to Work Really Work”:

“The policy changes were based on the mistaken premise that welfare is the problem. Welfare is not the problem-poverty is the problem…

Children and single mothers, especially those of color, have suffered the most… The expansion of a service economy, fewer jobs in government, and curtailment of civil rights has significantly limited job opportunities for poor women and people of color…

However, the many barriers to successful welfare-to-work transition for poor women are considerable and formidable. PRWORA does not focus on solving the critical problems poor women face… The failure to include in successful welfare-to-work strategies such factors as transportation, child care, clothing, and other structural supports often perpetuates a cycle of poor job preparation and a return to a need for public assistance.”



The American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) former Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, Laura Murphy, submitted a written statement on Feb. 24, 2005 to the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the House Committee on Ways and Means, for a hearing on “Welfare Reform Reauthorization Proposals” that stated:

“Many jobs held by TANF recipients, the vast majority of whom are women, will never lift a family out of poverty because the wages from these jobs are simply insufficient to support recipients’ families. Studies indicate that caseworkers typically steer TANF recipients into jobs traditionally held by women, which generally pay the lowest wages… Such occupational segregation is a primary cause of the wage gap between men and women…

Access to education and training, however, is both effective and essential for TANF recipients to move out of low-wage, gender-segregated jobs into this higher-wage employment with career advancement potential… This is the wrong choice for women and their families.”

Feb. 24, 2005


The Poverty and Race Research Action Council (PRRAC) published a July/Aug. 2000 paper by Barbara Gault and Nnisah Um’rani, titled “The Outcomes of Welfare Reform for Women,” in Poverty and Race:

“More than 90% of welfare recipient household heads are women, yet few policymakers recognize that discussions of welfare reform are by nature discussions of women’s issues…

The outcomes of welfare reform for women are mixed. New welfare policies have led to higher rates of work for current and former welfare recipients, but the jobs that women obtain are unstable, pay poor wages, and lack growth potential and benefits. At the same time, federal restrictions on job training diminish women’s human capital development opportunities, and reduce their potential to achieve long-term economic well-being.

Welfare caseloads have dropped and employment rates have increased, but evidence suggests that hardship has increased for a significant proportion of women who leave welfare. While states have more funds and freedom to provide support services, most have failed to utilize available funds to make meaningful social investments in a timely fashion.”

July/Aug. 2000