The Syracuse Post-Standard: Is welfare reform showing its age?
After new rules were adopted in 1996, including a five-year lifetime benefit limit and work requirements, President Clinton’s claim to “end welfare as we know it” seemed vindicated. Nationally, caseloads and welfare budgets dropped as former clients moved to self-sufficiency. In 10 years, the caseload for TANF — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — dropped 59 percent, from 4.4 million to 1.7 million. In Onondaga County, the caseload fell from around 10,000 in 1996 to about 4,200 in 2007, and continued to decline.
As early as 1997, Clinton proclaimed, “The debate is over.” Now some troubling numbers suggest the pronouncement may have been premature.
Welfare reform came along just as the economy entered a long boom cycle. When the recession hit in 2008, the county’s federal caseload was just 2,628. Since then, the numbers have surged — 13 percent just this year, to a projected 3,575. Meanwhile, the county’s share of “safety net” cases that do not qualify for federal assistance has grown even faster — up 24 percent this year to 4,000.
While New York is bound by the state constitution to support the needy, other states are not. According to a recent report in The New York Times, 16 states have actually cut welfare rolls since the recession began. Some have taken advantage of federal leeway to reduce time limits to as few as two years, tighten eligibility and reduce grants.