In August 1996 the federal government replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), ending the sixty-year entitlement of poor families with children to cash assistance. In so doing, Congress and Pres. Bill Clinton followed a path cut by a number of states, including Mississippi, which during the early 1990s had begun to retool their welfare systems into “workfare.”
Welfare reform constructed a new social contract between recipients of public assistance and the state. Whereas the AFDC program entitled all families with children and incomes below a state-determined threshold to welfare, TANF mandated that adult recipients work in exchange for receiving assistance. It also set a five-year lifetime limit on family receipt of welfare. Further, reform transformed the structure of the welfare system from a federal-state match grant into a block grant under which states were allowed to reduce spending on welfare by up to 25 percent and granted the option to apply funds to purposes other than supporting low-income families’ transitions to work. The amount of each state’s annual TANF grant was determined by the state’s historical levels of spending on welfare and job training. Because Mississippi had always spent very little, its annual block grant of approximately eighty-six million dollars was significantly below the national median.
The reform process had begun in Mississippi with the 1992 election of Republican governor Kirk Fordice, who had made the issue a central plank of his platform. Most fundamentally, welfare reform in Mississippi was marked by a “get tough” attitude toward recipients, who were expected to make a transition to self-sufficiency with minimal state support. The program emphasized reducing the size of the state welfare caseload and thus state spending on welfare services. The state first consolidated authority over the Department of Human Services, which was responsible for the administration of welfare, under the governor’s office. Then, in December 1994, the state implemented a pilot welfare reform program, New Directions, in some counties. New Directions made access to public assistance and support services contingent on a recipient finding a job or participating in state-subsidized “work activities” such as community service. The program imposed the nation’s harshest sanctions on recipients who failed to complete work requirements, including loss of the family’s entire welfare and food stamps grants. This punitive orientation reflected the administration’s belief that adult welfare recipients lacked motivation to work and had become dependent on welfare.
The federal government’s 1996 overhaul of the national welfare system reflected Mississippi’s approach—mandatory work requirements, sanctions, and time limits. Perhaps the major impact of federal reform in Mississippi was that it led to the implementation of New Directions throughout the state before it was fully prepared to do so. As the state that offered the lowest welfare payments in the nation—a family of three was eligible for a maximum AFDC grant of $120 per month—and that had a workforce development system oriented more toward obtaining federal funds than providing comprehensive services, Mississippi lacked both the fiscal and institutional capacity to support transitions to work. At the same time, however, the federal law subjected state leaders to tough new performance benchmarks, tying federal funds to either supporting TANF recipients’ participation in “work activities” or significantly reducing the caseload. Insofar as the costs of providing single mothers with child care and other services needed to sustain employment were effectively prohibitive, Mississippi, like other low-benefit southern states, pursued a strategy of caseload reduction. Between 1996 and 2006 the number of Mississippi families receiving assistance fell from approximately 44,000 to just over 12,000, a decline of roughly 73 percent.
While many state and federal officials point to caseload decline as an unqualified indicator of successful reform, many critical studies argue that Mississippi did not improve its welfare system as much as it severely restricted access to assistance. The program’s “work-first” orientation, combined with Govorner Fordice’s privatization of the delivery system, produced what a Rockefeller Institute report characterized as a system-wide collapse of accountability between 1996 and 1998 accompanied by inadequate service provision and incidents of client abuse. More generally, studies indicate that the caseload decline was achieved through administrative methods designed to deter eligible families from going on welfare and to push others out of the program without providing costly transitional services. One analysis of the status of those who left the program showed that only 18 percent found jobs, while 64 percent returned to TANF within five years. Another study found that only 10 percent of children whose parents left the program were covered by employer-provided health plans, while another 44 percent continued to receive government-funded health insurance.
In sum, Mississippi’s high rates of working poverty, illiteracy, and unwed births, combined with its historical aversion to funding work support services, made it one of the most challenging contexts in which to reform welfare. Observers agree that if Mississippi is to develop an effective welfare-to-work system, the state will need to significantly increase its investments in human capital and support services, including child care, job training and placement, education, and transportation. President Clinton envisioned welfare reform as forging a new social contract under which families who “worked hard and played by the rules” would be rewarded with access to a new array of work support services. For a variety of reasons, Mississippi and the federal government have largely failed to fulfill their responsibilities under that contract.
Mark H. Harvey
Florida Atlantic University
David A. Breaux, Christopher M. Duncan, C. Denise Keller, and John C. Morris, Public Administration Review (January–February 2002); Center for Law and Social Policy website, www.clasp.org; Jocelyn Guyer, Health Care after Welfare: An Update of Findings from State Leaver Studies (2000); Gretchen C. Kirby, L. Jerome Gallagher, LaDonna Pavetti, Milda Saunders, and Tennille Smith, Income Support and Social Services for Low-Income People in Mississippi (1 December 1998), Urban Institute website, www.urban.org; Mississippi Department of Human Services, Monthly Statistical Report: Economic Assistance Programs (2006); Domenico Parisi, Deborah A. Harris, Steven Michael Grice, Michael Taquino, and Duane A. Gill, Journal of Poverty (2005); Domenico Parisi, Diane K. McLaughlin, Steven Michael Grice, and Michael Taquino, Social Science Quarterly (2006); Kathleen Pickering, Mark H. Harvey, Gene F. Summers, and David Mushinski, Welfare Reform in Persistent Rural Poverty: Dreams, Disenchantments, and Diversity (2006).
- David A. Breaux, Christopher M. Duncan, C. Denise Keller, and John C. Morris, Public Administration Review (January–February 2002)
- Center for Law and Social Policy website, www.clasp.org
- Jocelyn Guyer, Health Care after Welfare: An Update of Findings from State Leaver Studies (2000)
- Gretchen C. Kirby, L. Jerome Gallagher, LaDonna Pavetti, Milda Saunders, and Tennille Smith, Income Support and Social Services for Low-Income People in Mississippi (1 December 1998), Urban Institute website, www.urban.org
- Mississippi Department of Human Services, Monthly Statistical Report: Economic Assistance Programs (2006)
- Domenico Parisi, Deborah A. Harris, Steven Michael Grice, Michael Taquino, and Duane A. Gill, Journal of Poverty (2005)
- Domenico Parisi, Diane K. McLaughlin, Steven Michael Grice, and Michael Taquino, Social Science Quarterly (2006)
- Kathleen Pickering, Mark H. Harvey, Gene F. Summers, and David Mushinski, Welfare Reform in Persistent Rural Poverty: Dreams, Disenchantments, and Diversity (2006)