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The Dignity of Work and Welfare Reform

By Steven Wagner, Acting Assistant Secretary for Children and Families

Welfare reform was one of the most successful social policy reforms enacted in the last several decades, encouraging work instead of dependency and promoting healthy choices that support marriages and families. Rolls in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program have dropped by around half since the 1996 reforms, while employment among single mothers with less than a high school education has risen and teen pregnancy and abortion rates have continued to fall.

Even with these successes, there remains an opportunity to further strengthen the central component of the 1996 welfare reform: work requirements. Some states actively engage TANF recipients in employment and work-related activities that can lead to meaningful employment and some states do less. So let’s be clear, if we want to change the culture of dependence that contributes to cycles of poverty, we must prioritize and recognize the intrinsic value of steady employment.

Today my office announced we are rescinding a policy from the Obama administration that encouraged waivers from TANF work requirements. This decision is the first of many steps to restore the intent of welfare reform and promote the dignity of work. A news release on the announcement is here.

Strengthening our nation’s work requirements for welfare recipients is not a punitive endeavor — it is a critical element of moving welfare recipients from dependency to self-sufficiency and providing a foundation to build and promote a better quality of life. Research shows engaging in work is almost always a good thing. The American child of a single parent who does not work is three times more likely to be living in poverty than the child of an employed single parent — a pattern that is replicated in other countries as well. And when an individual’s income goes up, that person’s health situation improves correspondingly. As a recent British study that found similar results noted, “good health and good wealth, poor health and poor wealth.”

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