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25 years after welfare reform, the system is pared down as intended. But critics say the program is failing.

Philadelphia Inquirer

August 13, 2021

Next Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of so-called welfare reform, which produced the program of cash assistance known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

TANF was created in 1996 after Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), formulated in 1935, was ended. Unlike AFDC, the new initiative was a block grant rather than a steady-state payment, and it imposed on recipients work requirements and cumulative time limits of five years.

Historians say TANF was meant to appease critics who believed that the old system fostered dependency. Conservatives would say it succeeded. In the 2½ decades of TANF, they have hailed it as a needed change that pared the welfare system and, specifically, ushered low-income women into the workforce.

But some scholars and advocates, including Center Director Mariana Chilton and Network member Alisha Gillespie, say what’s developed isn’t reform but a “punitive,” “racist,” “dehumanizing” institution that does little to ameliorate poverty.

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