For those who care about poverty in America, the coming months are a critical time, a turning point similar to the New Deal of the 1930s or the War on Poverty in the 1960s. Now, as then, we can make a difference in the lives of millions of people. It is a time for people of faith to speak, act, and pray on behalf of those still trapped in poverty.
In 1996, after much contentious debate, Congress passed historic welfare reform legislation. Direct federal cash assistance to people in poverty was ended, consolidated into block grants to the states—known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. The intention of the program was a change in paradigm from welfare to work.
Five years later, the track record is mixed. Welfare rolls have been reduced by 50 percent, partly due to the new emphasis and partly due to an economy that was—for most of that time—booming. The overall poverty rate and the child poverty rate have both declined.
Yet too many working people remain poor. Their jobs are mostly entry-level and minimum wage with few or no benefits. Many are only part-time. Twelve million children are still in poverty. State assistance has evolved from welfare into a wide array of work support programs, including job training, child care, transportation, and housing, and other benefits such as food stamps and health insurance programs.
THIS SUMMER, Congress is debating the reauthorization of the TANF program. What's the best way to build on the undeniable successes and make changes to improve the weaknesses of welfare reform? There are several key areas where we should focus our efforts.