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The White House Defender of Welfare Work Requirements


May 23, 2023

If someone asked you to name a US President who also was a longtime defender of work requirements for welfare benefits, whom might you guess? Ronald Reagan? Donald Trump? George W. Bush? These are good thoughts, but contrary to popular wisdom the answer is a Democrat. That might make you guess Bill Clinton, who signed the 1996 welfare reform law creating new work requirements for welfare benefits. But the person we have in mind is not President Clinton. Instead, this person was in Congress then—and voted for that 1996 law before he became President years later. The answer is then-Senator and now President Joe Biden.  

Here are some of then-Senator Joe Biden’s quotes about welfare reform and requiring work. In 1987, he said:

Handouts are not enough. Government subsidy is not the ultimate answer to the problems of the poor.

In 1988, he wrote:

We are all too familiar with the stories of welfare mothers driving luxury cars and leading lifestyles that mirror the rich and famous. Whether they are exaggerated or not, these stories underlie a broad social concern that the welfare system has broken down—that it only parcels out welfare checks and does nothing to help the poor find productive jobs.

In 1996, he said:

Since 1987, when I first proposed an overhaul of the welfare system, I have argued that welfare recipients should be required to work….I was pilloried by many of my friends back then for even suggesting the idea of requiring work. Today, I think everyone here believes that work should be the premise of our welfare system.

Biden was one of 78 senators—including all Republicans and more than half of Democrats—who voted for the 1996 welfare reform law (called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) when it passed in August 1996. That law included broad new work requirements for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare checks paid to low-income parents as well as food stamps issued to able-bodied adults without dependents. In both cases, adult recipients were expected to work, search for work, or engage in education, training, or other activities at least part time to remain eligible for benefits.

Those 1996 reforms were followed by marked increases in work and earnings and sharp declines in poverty and benefit dependence. Writing about the impact of welfare reform in 2008, liberal poverty expert Robert Moffitt wrote: “The findings on employment and earnings confirm the time-series evidence presented earlier, indicating consistently positive effects of welfare reform.”

Biden’s past quotes about work requirements sound downright conservative to contemporary ears, which tells you a lot about the leftward drift of the Democratic party since the 1990s. Bill Clinton and his 1996 pledge that the era of big government is over are now long forgotten. No one on the left calls means-tested benefits “work supports” anymore. Instead, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) freely castigates America’s “work ethic culture” and pledged in her Green New Deal that government would provide “economic security” even to those who are “unwilling to work.” For his part, President Biden enacted dramatic expansions in welfare benefits, including by temporarily reviving in 2021 the sort of work-free welfare checks that the 1996 welfare reform law ended.

Those expansions have generally expired, and House Republicans recently included strengthened work requirements—which would cover TANF along with food stamps and Medicaid benefits provided to able-bodied adults without dependents—in their debt limit bill. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has said including work requirements in the debt limit deal is a red line for him and House Republicans.

Ballot measures and opinion polls suggest that the American public is with Speaker McCarthy. In April, almost 80 percent of Wisconsin voters approved a ballot measure that said welfare recipients should at least search for work to receive taxpayer-funded benefits. And in February, a YouGov poll found that two-thirds of Americans—including 64 percent of Democrats—support expecting able-bodied welfare recipients to participate in work or training in exchange for benefits.

That has left President Biden in a bind—reconciling his past support for work requirements with most of his party’s current antipathy to them. Regrettably, he has equivocated, first signaling his openness but then saying he would not accept “anything of any consequence” on work requirements in the debt limit deal. Meanwhile, a majority of the American public believe that adults who can work should work in order to receive public benefits—consistent with Republican proposals.

Will President Biden agree with them—and Senator Biden? It’s anyone’s guess.

About the Authors

Matt Weidinger
Angela Rachidi