Many discussions about welfare suggest that our goal should be to move as many people off welfare as possible. This was exactly Bill Clinton’s view when he declared the success of his 1996 Welfare Reform Act, noting that the welfare rolls have been sliced almost in half in only 4 years. But this misses the point. Our goal should be to move as many people out of poverty as possible. Welfare and poverty are not the same thing. Welfare attempts to alleviate poverty. Confusing the two is like confusing chemotherapy with cancer. Not only is this unhelpful, it has led to stereotypes and misperceptions that continue to undermine welfare policy.
Two of those misperceptions—that there is wide-scale dependence on welfare and vast numbers of people who depend on welfare as a way of life—are undermined by studies over the past few decades. Since 1996, there has been a five-year lifetime cap on TANF assistance for adults. In 2006, the average length of time families received TANF assistance was 35.4 months, and case closure data from 35 states indicated that less than one-half of one percent of cases were closed because families had hit the 5-year ceiling.2 In other words, not only are people not allowed to receive TANF for more than 5 years, virtually all of them leave before that 5 years is up.
Second, repeat customers are less common that many believe. The perception of a cycle of welfare dependency that passes along from generation to generation is undermined somewhat by two long-term studies reported by the House Ways and Means Committee in 1992 that found “only about one in five daughters of ‘highly welfare dependent’ mothers themselves become highly dependent on welfare. The rest rely on welfare sporadically or not at all.”3 Of course, this suggests that 20% of children of highly dependent welfare recipients do come to rely on welfare assistance themselves. The problem comes in framing this as welfare dependency rather than generational poverty.
The cycle that must be addressed, then, is not a cycle of welfare dependency, but a cycle of generational poverty. Causes of generational poverty highlight just how difficult it is to lift oneself out of poverty.
Generational poverty describes people whose families have lived in poverty for at least two generations; situational poverty describes people who have fallen into poverty because of a specific life event such as major illness, loss of job, divorce, death of family member, etc.Sources  The Urban Institute, “A Decade of Welfare Reform: Facts and Figures,” 2006. www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/900980_welfarereform.pdf 2 Office of Family Assistance, “Eighth Annual Report to Congress”, 2009. www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/resource/tanf-8th-report-111908 3 Richard M. Coughlin, “Welfare Myths and Stereotypes,” 1989:91-92. In Reforming Welfare: Limits, Lessons, and Choices, ed. Richard M. Coughlin, pp. 79-106. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. www.unm.edu/~Coughlin/links/Publications/Welfare_Myths_and_Stereotypes.pdf.