Welfare program in the United States intended to provide financial assistance to low-income families.
Initially created in 1935 under Title IV of the Social Security Act as Aid to Dependent Children, the program’s principal objective focused on preventing poor families from placing their children in orphanages in exchange for direct cash payments. The program was renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1962, and the federal government matched state funds for the program. Although AFDC remained an entitlement of the federal government’s budget, individual states determined eligibility and amount of benefits received, resulting in significant variation from state to state.
Typical recipients included single-parent families, especially unmarried mothers and their children. The basic eligibility requirement was that a family include a dependent child 18 years of age or younger, with an exception for 19-year-old high school students. The child must prove U.S. citizenship or possess a legal permanent alien status and must lack financial support from one parent. Two-parent families may receive benefits if one parent remains unemployed.
The American public perceived the ADFC program, customarily identified within the larger context of the welfare system, as flawed. It subsequently remained a target of bipartisan criticism that culminated in varied proposals to reform the system and to address the nation’s poverty problem. These proposals typically sought to require the recipient to work, to assume personal responsibility, and to become self-sufficient. In 1988, Congress redefined AFDC through the Family Support Act, a comprehensive reform initiative that focused on employment rather than income support. Then, in 1996, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a component of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, replaced AFDC entirely. TANF differs from its predecessor on several levels. Primarily, it perceives welfare as a temporary circumstance rather than a lifelong situation, and consequently it establishes a five-year time limit for benefits. In addition, the program receives funding from federal block grants, which provide greater flexibility to the states and allow them to address their individual circumstances.