U.S. Welfare Reform Links Assistance to Work

The first overhaul of the U.S. welfare system in more than half a century, the Family Support Act cemented a link between welfare and work and strengthened the nation’s child support enforcement system.

Summary of Event

The link between work strategies and welfare policy in the United States became significant with the “thirty and one-third” earnings exemption legislated for the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program in 1967. The limited Work Incentive Program Work Incentive Program (WIN) of AFDC was also enacted in 1967. Welfare reform
Family Support Act (1988)
[kw]U.S. Welfare Reform Links Assistance to Work (Oct. 13, 1988)
[kw]Welfare Reform Links Assistance to Work, U.S. (Oct. 13, 1988)
[kw]Reform Links Assistance to Work, U.S. Welfare (Oct. 13, 1988)
[kw]Work, U.S. Welfare Reform Links Assistance to (Oct. 13, 1988)
Welfare reform
Family Support Act (1988)
[g]North America;Oct. 13, 1988: U.S. Welfare Reform Links Assistance to Work[06950]
[g]United States;Oct. 13, 1988: U.S. Welfare Reform Links Assistance to Work[06950]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 13, 1988: U.S. Welfare Reform Links Assistance to Work[06950]
[c]Social issues and reform;Oct. 13, 1988: U.S. Welfare Reform Links Assistance to Work[06950]
Reagan, Ronald
[p]Reagan, Ronald;welfare reform
Dole, Bob
Ford, Harold
Michel, Robert H.
Moynihan, Daniel Patrick
Anderson, Martin

Two U.S. welfare reform efforts linking cash benefits to work failed to gather sufficient political support in the 1970’s. President Richard M. Nixon’s Nixon, Richard M.
[p]Nixon, Richard M.;welfare reform Family Assistance Plan (FAP) would have federalized AFDC and provided cash income to working poor persons and their families. President Jimmy Carter’s Carter, Jimmy
[p]Carter, Jimmy;welfare reform Program for Better Jobs and Income Program for Better Jobs and Income (PBJI) had placed jobs and work incentives at the heart of welfare reform.

According to the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee’s 1994 Green Book, between 1970 and 1980 total costs for AFDC nearly tripled, from $4.1 to $11.5 billion after adjusting for inflation. The number of families receiving AFDC benefits increased from 1.9 million to 3.6 million; the number of recipients went from 7.4 million to 10.6 million.

The election of Ronald Reagan to the U.S. presidency in 1980 provided a political wedge for antiwelfare punditry about the values and behavior of poor persons, particularly unmarried mothers and noncustodial fathers who failed to pay child support. As governor of California, Reagan had opposed FAP, and as a presidential candidate in 1976, he had emphasized the story of a Chicago “welfare queen” who allegedly scammed$150,000 from AFDC. Martin Anderson’s Welfare (1978), Irwin Garfinkel and Sara McLanahan’s Single Mothers and Their Children (1986), George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty (1981), Charles Murray’s Losing Ground (1984), Lawrence Mead’s Beyond Entitlement (1986), and David Ellwood’s Poor Support (1988) provided much of the theoretical and empirical underpinnings of welfare reform throughout the 1980’s.

The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (1981) provided for community work experience programs (CWEPs), making it possible for the first time for states to choose to make so-called workfare mandatory for AFDC recipients. The act authorized states to fund on-the-job training programs by using (diverting) a recipient’s welfare grant as a wage subsidy for private employers. States were also permitted to develop their own work incentive demonstration programs. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office’s 1987 study Work and Welfare, roughly 22 percent (714,448) of all AFDC recipients participated in these programs nationwide.

Welfare expenses and rolls continued to climb throughout the 1980’s, having reached $14.6 billion and servicing 6.7 million families, or 10.6 million recipients, in 1985. Reagan called for more extensive welfare reform in his February 4, 1986, state of the union address. A congressional consensus emerged regarding welfare reform, overcoming obstacles that had precluded passage of FAP and PBJI.

The one hundredth session of Congress focused on three major bills: the Family Security Act of 1987 (S. 1511), introduced by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan; the Family Welfare Reform Act of 1987 (H.R. 1720), introduced by Representative Harold Ford; and the Welfare Independence Act of 1987, the Republican alternative for welfare reform, introduced by Senator Bob Dole (S. 1655) and by Representative Robert H. Michel (H.R. 3200). Despite differences in some specifics, all of these bills linked welfare reform to work.

As welfare expenses approached $16.7 billion in 1988, Reagan signed the Family Support Act (FSA) on October 13. Title I amended part D of Title IV of the Social Security Act to require withholding of child support payments from noncustodial parents’ wages upon issuance or modification of a child support order for families receiving part D services. It required immediate wage withholding for all new child support orders issued on or after January 1, 1994. Parties in a contested paternity case had to submit to genetic tests at the request of a party in such cases. States that did not have automated data processing and information retrieval systems in effect had to have such systems operational by October 1, 1995.

Title II required states to establish a job opportunities and basic skills training program (JOBS). It also authorized states to institute a work supplementation program under which such state reserves sums that would otherwise be payable to JOBS participants as AFDC benefits are instead used to subsidize jobs for such participation. Title II authorized any state to establish CWEPs.

Title III directed states to guarantee child care services to AFDC families to the extent that such services were necessary for a family member’s employment or participation in an education and training activity of which the state approves. Title III also amended Title IX (Medicaid) of the Social Security Act to require a state to continue a family’s Medicaid eligibility for six months after the family loses AFDC eligibility because of specified circumstances.

Title IV retained the entitlement nature of AFDC. States had to provide benefits to every family that met AFDC need standards. It also authorized states to condition an unmarried minor parent’s receipt of AFDC payments on his or her residence with a parent, legal guardian, or other adult relative, or in an adult-supervised living arrangement, and set guidelines for exemptions.

Title V authorized appropriations for fiscal years 1990 through 1992 for grants to states to conduct demonstration projects testing the efficacy of early childhood development programs on families receiving AFDC benefits and participating in JOBS and of JOBS on reducing the number of school dropouts, encouraging skill development, and avoiding sole reliance on AFDC payments. Other demonstration projects were also authorized but were limited to a specified number of states.


The Family Support Act cemented the consensus linking welfare reform to work and reaffirmed the role of the federal government in enabling states to increase their capacity to obtain and enforce child support payments from noncustodial parents. By solidifying the link between welfare cash benefits and work, the federal government broadened and deepened the employment goals of welfare policy while eroding the income maintenance goal for poor persons. Instead, the welfare and work link reaffirmed the enabling function of government. To the extent that government expected poor persons to work, especially those with younger children, many of whom were mothers, it had the responsibility to provide ways to ensure that they had access to and sufficient means for child care, job training, educational opportunities, and the like. The Family Support Act enhanced the contractual and reciprocal relationship between government and citizens. Poor persons had a responsibility to pursue employment opportunities, and government had a responsibility to provide the means necessary to enhance the prospects that they would do so successfully.

In addition to the welfare and work link, the Family Support Act also enhanced individual and state capacities to obtain child support payments from noncustodial parents. Although the immediate impact of Title I on poor persons was deemed negligible by some analysts, the child support provisions of the act applied to everyone, regardless of income level. These provisions enhanced the role of the federal government in family matters traditionally left to the states. In particular, by requiring states to establish automated information systems, the federal government increased the capacity of government in general to identify and track noncustodial parents who change jobs, cross state lines, and the like, for purposes of garnishing wages necessary to secure child support payments due to custodial parents. Welfare reform
Family Support Act (1988)

Further Reading

  • Caputo, Richard K. “The Limits of Welfare Reform.” Social Casework 70 (February, 1989): 85-95. Argues for shifting public debate and intervention programs for poor persons from welfare reform to poverty reduction.
  • Ellwood, David. Poor Support: Poverty and the American Family. New York: Basic Books, 1988. Documents the nature and effects of income support programs for poor persons on families in the United States.
  • Garfinkel, Irwin, and Sara S. McLanahan. Single Mothers and Their Children: A New American Dilemma. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute Press, 1986. Describes the nature and extent of single motherhood in the United States.
  • Handler, Joel F., and Yeheskel Hasenfeld. The Moral Construction of Poverty: Welfare Reform in America. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1991. Traces the history of welfare policy through the Family Support Act. Highlights the importance of symbols in defining and redefining different moral categories of poor persons and in framing responses to them.
  • Mink, Gwendolyn, and Rickie Solinger, eds. Welfare: A Documentary History of U.S. Policy and Politics. New York: New York University Press, 2003. Collection of excerpts from key documents marking the development of U.S. welfare policy in the twentieth century. Uses original sources to show how understandings of poverty and interventions to deal with it have changed over time.

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