Welfare and the Politics of Poverty

Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform was supposed to move needy families off government handouts and onto a path out of poverty. Twenty years later, how has it turned out?

By the mid-1990s, with record numbers of Americans on welfare, public resentment reached a tipping point. Recipients were stigmatized as lazy ne’er-do-wells feeding at the public trough. Politicians railed against “welfare queens”, the unwed mothers they claimed were gaming the system, having more babies to get more taxpayer cash.

Republicans had been pushing to overhaul welfare for decades, with little success. But in 1996, in a move that outraged liberals, a Democratic president signed into law a bill that “ended welfare as we know it.”

The vision of welfare reform was an optimistic one. The poor would be liberated from dependency on government handouts, so they could enjoy the dignity of work and move from poverty to self-sufficiency. What actually happened is a lesson in good intentions gone awry, and raises questions about whether the politics of poverty have changed much in 20 years.

For teachers
  • Producer: Karen M. Sughrue
  • Editor: Sandrine Isambert
  • Reporter: Sarah Weiser

For Educators


This 13-minute video chronicles the decision by Bill Clinton to sign a controversial welfare reform bill in 1996. The video illustrates the centrist tendencies of President Clinton’s administration, and shows students how the bill has affected the lives of poor Americans. The video is useful for demonstrating the political context of the 1990s, and sets up an engaging discussion about Americans’ changing views about the government’s role in providing public assistance.

Background reading

Created in 1935 as part of the New Deal, Aid to Families With Dependent Children enabled the poor could claim welfare from the government in cash, with no limit on the amount of available money or on how long payments would continue.

But in the anti-welfare backlash that eventually developed, “entitlement” became a dirty word, certainly among conservative Republicans but also among many centrist Democrats. Americans receiving welfare, hardly a powerful political force, found themselves routinely characterized as loafers and cheats.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law a bill that promised to end “welfare as we know it.”

The new law gave individual states the power to decide how best to spend their federal welfare funds, and by 2000 the welfare caseloads had dropped to their lowest level in 30 years.

But the financial crash of 2008 revealed a downside to the apparent success of state-managed welfare. Crushed by budget shortfall, states filled financial gaps by shifting funds designated for welfare to pay for everything from pre-K programs to college scholarships.

As job losses mounted and the demand for welfare assistance soared, states were unable to provide adequate coverage.

By 2016, the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s promise to end “welfare as we know it,” people receiving cash assistance had dropped from 14.1 million to 4.1 million.

But even Clinton admitted that those in deepest poverty were worse off than they had been. And those living in deepest poverty – making less than $10,000 a year – sought help in other government-supported programs, such as food stamps.

Lesson Plan 1: Public Policy: Welfare Reform

Students will learn how President Bill Clinton signed a welfare bill to reform a program created as part of the New Deal in 1935; and how the bill has reshaped the relationship between poor Americans and the government.

  • How Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform bill reflected the centrist politics of his administration and the broader political context of the 1990s.
  • How Clinton’s welfare reform bill was intended to function, and how it was implemented by state governments.
  • How Clinton’s welfare reform bill has affected the lives of poor Americans, and reshaped the relationship between poor Americans and government.
Essential questions
  • When were the first federal welfare programs created? What group of people were they created to help? By the 1990s, why did some Americans want to reduce spending on welfare programs?
  • How did Bill Clinton position himself on the issue of welfare?
  • When Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform bill in 1996, what were the terms of the bill? How did it change welfare policy?
  • In the late 1990s, during the booming economy, what were the results of Clinton’s welfare reform bill? How did these results change when the economy went into recession? How did individual states begin to modify the intentions of the bill? What did states do with the money they were supposed to be spending on TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families)?
  • Two decades ago, 68 out of every 100 poor families in the US received welfare. After two decades of welfare reform, what is that number today? How many millions of Americans live in poverty today?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
    • D2.Civ.13.9-12.Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Period 9: 1980-Present
    • Topic 9.1: Contextualizing Period 9

      Skill 4.B: Explain how a specific historical development or process is situated within a broader historical context.

      Theme 5: Politics and Power (PCE).