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Welfare As We Knew It: The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act

On August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act which ushered in the most sweeping changes in the welfare system since its adoption as part of the Social Security Act of 1935.  In the following account, former White House staffer and now University of Washington Assistant Professor of History Margaret OMara describes from an insiders vantage point the road to that legislation.

The dictionary definition of “welfare” is expansive and positive, connoting an activity – aiding those in need – which Americans historically have approached with empathy and enthusiasm.  Yet in the late twentieth century, the definition of “welfare” narrowed in the public imagination to mean the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, a public system of providing money to poor and unemployed women with children, a disproportionate ercentage of whom were people of color. 

Established by the Social Security Act of 1935 as the first federal program of direct monetary assistance to poor families, AFDC sought to provide financial security for the most vulnerable Americans. Yet throughout its sixty-year history, national politicians used condemnation of “welfare” and welfare recipients as a powerful and racially-loaded rhetorical tool.  By the 1990s, it had become clear to liberals and conservatives alike that the AFDC system had failed profoundly in its mission to keep single-parent families out of poverty.  Poverty had become multigenerational, and so had AFDC dependence. 

Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton first seized the national spotlight in 1988 through his advocacy of increased experimentation with alternative welfare approaches.  Many of these initiatives involved instituting “workfare” – requirements that welfare recipients have a job, search for work, or participate in community service activities in order to keep receiving a welfare check.  When Clinton ran for President in 1992, welfare reform became a major plank of his domestic agenda.  The issue was

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