Are There No Workhouses?

To GOP Congress, as Usual, It’s Welfare on the Chopping Block

Technically, welfare expired in 2010. Congress keeps funding it ad hoc—but when the GOP takes over the Senate next year, who knows.

12.25.14 10:45 AM ET

Congress loves to be Scroogey when it comes to helping the poor at Christmastime. Last year, it let an unemployment extension for the long-term jobless expire during the holidays. That was right after food-stamps were cut. This year, a bare-bones welfare program will continue into the New Year without being updated. For some, it’s a mixed blessing: This Congress would likely cut the program even more rather than fix its problems.

In late 2010, Tea Party Republicans first stormed into the House of Representatives with their budget-cutting agenda, one of the first items they nominated for the chopping block was a component of the program once known as welfare.

The program was a $25 billion emergency fund that passed in the stimulus act and encouraged employers to hire low-income workers by subsidizing their salaries through welfare-to-work funds. Throughout 2009 and 2010, it had created 250,000 jobs in 37 states, including conservative states like Mississippi, and was widely popular because it helped bolster employment during the economic downturn.

Despite the program’s popularity, Congress let it die in September 2010. So it was ironic a couple of months later when the Tea Partiers were railing against it—it had already expired.

And that’s how fights over virtually all aspects of the program once known as welfare go. Welfare recipients have had to meet work requirements to receive their checks ever since President Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform law in 1996, and those paychecks are meager: in most states, the average family will receive between $200 and $400, clocking in between 20 and 30 hours of work activities and applying for as many as 20 jobs a week. Yet stereotypes of the program as a large handout to moochers who don't have jobs remain, and the program is always among the first that the public and conservatives would sacrifice to budget cuts.

And so as the year ends, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as what we call welfare is officially known, is not being reauthorized again this year. The bill expired way back in 2010. Congress keeps funding it through continuing resolutions, but TANF’s existence has been year-to-year, and supporters of the social safety net have always preferred full reauthorization.

But there’s a new twist: Now, many progressives and policymakers who care about the poor are ironically happy that TANF isn’t being reauthorized again this year. The reason? These folks fear that reauthorizing the bill will hand Republicans who control the house—and as of January, the Senate—the opportunity they’ve been waiting for—to gut it.

The program already operates at a minimum level. In 1997, the first year after the law was passed, state governments spent 70 percent of the funds provided through the program on cash assistance for families. Now they only spend about a quarter of their money by directly helping families, and they send the rest of the money on other welfare-related programs or use it to close holes in their own budgets. Critics noted this led to the program’s lackluster response to the economic crisis. In 2011, only 27 percent of families living in poverty were receiving welfare assistance.

Among the fears are that House Republicans will try to eviscerate funding—which in 2013 totaled about $16.5 billion for the welfare program. The House budget chair, the Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, wants to turn all safety-net programs into a giant block grant to the states—he says it would maintain the programs’ current levels of funding but most experts believe funding would ultimately dwindle and serve fewer families.

Republicans showed their gleeful willingness to go after safety-net programs when they tried to slash food stamps by more than half. And when President Barack Obama attempted to provide waivers to states so that they could be more flexible in how they administered welfare-to-work and do less paperwork for the federal government, Republicans accused him of gutting the work requirements. So not only are Republicans likely to cut funding, but they would also resist any changes that might actually make the program run better.

This is why progressives are just as happy to see TANF not be reauthorized. However, there’s a downside to that. Only eight states have raised the amount of money that families get to keep pace with inflation, which is why so many families in so many states get so little money. Reauthorizing the bill could force states to readjust the formulas they use to determine benefits so that families get more.

The stimulus program that helped low-income Americans find employment during the recession—the one the Republicans were so proud to claim credit for cutting—could be reauthorized as well. While the economy has been inching toward recovery, the long-term unemployed and low-income Americans are still struggling to find good jobs that pay well, and increased welfare funds designed to employ them could bolster the economy again.

There are other programs, including those designed to help states serve their clients better, that have expired or gotten lost in the shuffle. Many advocates want those changed, adjusted, or bolstered, and the only way to do that is to open up the bill and reauthorize it. 

Instead, conservatives still view the fact that Americans need help from the government as a disaster, and are more likely to cut benefits than to think about helping them. It was a Republican Congress working with a Democratic president that succeeded in passing the welfare reform bill the first time. But this time around, advocates are too worried Republicans will do something unprecedented, like they did with food stamps—which is try to tear the program completely apart.