Debates about poverty in the United States have for decades centered on what to do about cash assistance for those unable to work. With the enactment of welfare reform in 1996, the debate has entered a new phase: what to do about those who can work but remain poor nonetheless.
By some measures welfare reform has been a stunning success. Caseloads declined 38 percent between August 1996 and the end of 1998. A majority of former recipients are now working. Most studies put the proportion employed at between 60 percent and 70 percent. Many of the rest are probably living with family friends. Equally important, fewer people are applying for welfare: women who might once have turned to the government for support appear to be finding jobs instead. Reports of increased homelessness or other instances of extreme hardship are few, and many welfare recipients report that they are satisfied with the new rules. (In a South Carolina survey, three-fourths of ex-recipients said they were better off than when they were on welfare.)