Growing numbers of Americans are trading their welfare checks and food stamps for jobs, even as Congress wrestles with ways to end what critics say is a cycle of dependency among the country’s poorest families.
Democrats say an improving economy is the reason for the shrinking welfare caseloads; Republicans say families are leaving the rolls as Congress and the states make clear that they are serious about overhauling the system and requiring work.
Some experts say both factors may be at play.
“The economy is good in many states, reform is in the air and people everywhere understand that we’re getting closer to a work requirement,” says Gerald Whitburn, secretary of health and human services in Massachusetts.
“There’s an expectation that the endless stream of welfare checks is coming to a close; there’s a sunset in that environment,” he said from Boston, where welfare reform has been a front-burner issue for two years and caseloads have been dropping just as long.
“Finally, governors are putting in place changes that are driving more positive behavior and a reduced caseload,” Whitburn said.
Nationwide, low-income Americans began giving up their food stamps and leaving the rolls of Aid to Families with Dependent Children in the summer of 1994, after years of rapid growth in the two programs, according to figures from the departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.
In the case of food stamps, the number of recipients dropped to 25.9 million in August, the first time that participation had fallen below 26 million in three years.
At its peak in March 1994, the food stamp program helped 28 million people - more than one in 10 Americans - buy groceries.
For AFDC, a federal-state cash welfare program for poor families with children, participation tumbled in August to 13.2 million recipients in 4.72 million families.
At the program’s height, also in March 1994, it was supporting 14.36 million people in 5.08 million families, and one in seven American children was dependent on welfare.
Today, one in every eight children receives AFDC, and the numbers are falling across the country.
States, meanwhile, are experimenting with time limits on benefits, work requirements for recipients and bans on cash payments to children born into welfare-dependent families.
Thirty-five states have received permission from the Clinton administration to change the rules of their welfare programs; 19 are trying time-limited welfare and 13 are trying caps on benefits.
At the same time, lawmakers in Washington are writing final legislation to abolish AFDC, curb food stamp spending, put welfare recipients to work after two years and cut off their cash assistance after five.