Activation and Reform in the United States: What Time Has Told

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The American “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reform Act” of 1996 (PRWORA) promoted “work over welfare” and included significant work and other activation requirements for adult recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the safety net for poor families with children. Wiseman’s 1999 review of work-related requirements in TANF emphasized that states were still adjusting policy to various requirements of the law and that only “time would tell” what the ultimate consequences might be and what role activation would play. Time has now told. States have developed creative ways to meet the strict federal activation requirements without paying for workfare. Less than 40 percent of the TANF adult work-eligible caseload is “activated”—meaning that benefit receipt is conditional on some self-support incentive or obligation—and only about 12 percent of those persons engage in workfare. At the same time, mostly as a result of states’ efforts, access to the TANF safety net has contracted, inequities in federal support have increased, real benefits have declined, and fiscal responsibility for general social assistance has shifted upward from states to the federal government without significant rationale. States’ strategy of shifting funding from income support to more broadly-targeted services reduced the capacity of the TANF system to respond to the Great Recession of 2007-2009. The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (formerly the Food Stamp Program) now provides what is de facto the national minimum income. Despite TANF’s shortcomings, the Obama administration reasonably chose to focus domestic policy on health care, rather than welfare reform. A national health insurance scheme was introduced in 2010 and gradual implementation is under way despite political opposition.  Little change has occurred in TANF; keeping the program small eases states’ difficulties with achieving required work activity participation rates.  And the highly partisan political struggle over taxes and the federal deficit precludes significant change in TANF outreach or activation requirements.

Suggested citation:
Wiseman, Michael, Anderson, Theresa, and Kairys, Katharine. “Activation in the United States: What Time Has Told.” Manuscript, August 28, 2013.