Research Paper

The State of the Social Safety Net in the Post-Welfare Reform Era
Marianne Bitler and Hilary W. Hoynes (Affiliate in Economics)

The 1996 welfare reform led to sweeping changes to the central cash safety net program for families with children. Along with other changes, the reform imposed lifetime time limits for receipt of cash welfare, effectively ending its entitlement nature for these families. Despite dire predictions, previous research has shown that program caseloads declined and employment increased, with no detectible increase in poverty or worsening of child well-being. Research Affiliate Hilary Hoynes reevaluates these results in light of the severe 2007–09 recession.

Researchers examine how welfare reform has altered the cyclicality of the response of caseloads and family well-being. They find that use of food stamps and noncash safety net program participation have become significantly more responsive to the economic cycle after welfare reform, rising more when unemployment increases. By contrast, the project finds no evidence that cash welfare for families with children is more responsive, and some evidence that it might be less so. Researchers also find some evidence that poverty increases more with increases in the unemployment rate after reform, and none that it increases less. They find no significant effects of reform on the cyclical responsiveness of food consumption, food insecurity, health insurance, household crowding, or health. 

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