Howard Portnoy
July 15, 2012

One has to give the president credit. Normally when he attempts to seize power that is beyond the scope of the executive branch, he does it late on Friday with an eye toward diminished media coverage.

His latest grab came on Thursday, albeit with little fanfare. A policy directive issued by his Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced changes to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) act, better known as “welfare reform.”

The fundamental concept underlying TANF, which won bipartisan support under the Bill Clinton presidency, was its requirement that able-bodied adults work, or at least prepare for work, as a condition of receiving financial aid from the federal government. How successful was the program? In 1996, the year it was signed into law, more than 12 million families were on the welfare rolls, the poverty rate was 11%, and the unemployment rate was 5.4%. The following year, the number of caseloads dropped to just over 10 million, the poverty rate fell nearly a full point, and unemployment dropped to 4.9%. By 2000, the number of families on welfare had fallen to below 5.8 million, the poverty rate was 8.7%, and the unemployment rate was at 4%.

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