Hastings Law Journal

Article Title

Welfare to What?


Noah Zatz


Ten years ago, President Clinton fulfilled his campaign pledge to end "welfare as we know it" by signing sweeping federal welfare reform legislation. The replacement of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) marked an important transformation in the character of the American welfare state. Work provided the core of the much-touted public policy consensus underlying this transformation, one that simultaneously restricted and expanded the availability of government transfers to low-income Americans. While tough new TANF work requirements cut back on welfare for those who did not work, those who did work but remained poor received new relief through massive expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) designed to "make work pay."

Precisely what qualifies as work recently became a central point of controversy during Congress' struggle to reauthorize and substantially rewrite the TANF statute. The definition of work determines who feels the sting of new restrictions on welfare and who receives the support of new transfers through the EITC. This Article examines how the centerpieces of federal welfare reform, TANF and the EITC, actually implement work requirements and define "work," both at the federal and state levels. This Article also demonstrates a striking level of variation in how state law permits TANF recipients to satisfy their work requirements.

The easy symmetry between TANF and the EITC, reflecting their common concern with work, breaks down once we examine work in more detail. TANF and the EITC, while clearly related in important ways, cannot be understood simply as two different administrative mechanisms for delivering poverty relief to "workers." Instead, the character of work-based distribution shifts as we move from TANF, which directs its cash benefits to the very poorest families, to the EITC, which targets those who remain poor despite significant earnings. At the heart of this shifting approach to work is a well-known tension between rewarding work and alleviating poverty with a single transfer program. The competing formal definitions of work in TANF and the EITC provide a microcosm of the competing implications of different approaches to work and why it matters.

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