The 2010 Reauthorization of Welfare Reform Could Result in Important Changes

December 18, 2009

The welfare reform law of 1996 is widely regarded as one of the most important pieces of social legislation since the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid in the mid-1960s. Although the 1996 law is known primarily for its radical reforms designed to help, cajole, or force welfare mothers to seek self sufficiency through work, there were important changes in several other means-tested programs as well. These included reorganization and expansion of child care programs, termination of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for drug addicts and alcoholics, tightening of the definition of disability for children on SSI, sweeping reforms in the child support enforcement program, major restrictions on means-tested benefits for noncitizens, creation of an abstinence education program, and others. Most of these provisions of law are scheduled to be reauthorized by Congress in 2010. My purpose here is to discuss, based primarily on interviews with officials, advocates, and scholars who are well acquainted with the politics of welfare reform, what actions Congress seems likely to take during reauthorization. This reauthorization is of great importance because it will be the first reauthorization conducted when Democrats, many of whom were strongly opposed to the 1996 reforms, have control of Congress and the presidency since the reforms were enacted. Thus, many senior Democrats might be expected to try to refashion the welfare reform law they strongly rejected in 1996. Any major provision of the 1996 law that survives the 2010 reauthorization seems likely to continue indefinitely.

Republicans intended to use the 1996 law to require as many people as possible to leave welfare programs in search of self sufficiency. Thus, Republicans believed that too many welfare mothers were not doing enough to join the labor force and avoid welfare; that noncitizens who came to America for opportunity should not be allowed to receive welfare until they become citizens except under emergency circumstances; that no able-bodied adults who became addicted to drugs or alcohol should receive public cash benefits specifically because of their addiction; and that too many children were qualifying for SSI with mental conditions that involved little more than acting out in school or having a learning disability. Democrats were opposed to many of the provisions Republicans enacted to achieve their vision of self sufficiency, but once President  Bill Clinton agreed to sign the bill in July 1996 there was little they could do to stop the Republican-Clinton train. After Clinton announced he would sign the bill, half the Democrats in the House and Senate voted for the bill and Clinton signed it into law on August 22, 1996. Now, political conditions are reversed. Democrats control the House, Senate, and Presidency and might want to repeal – or at least modify – some of the reforms.

It is impossible to know what will happen during reauthorization, but for politicians, advocates, reporters, and scholars interested in the fate of the 1996 reforms, getting an understanding of the reforms that seem the most likely to be repealed or modified before the reauthorization debate begins will provide the basis for both intellectual and lobbying action for or against the possible changes. Arguably the best way to find out which provisions might be vulnerable is to ask congressional and state staffers, administration officials, advocates, and scholars who are steeped in welfare law, the ebb and flow of congressional and administration activity, and research on welfare what they think might happen during reauthorization.