Then-President Bill Clinton clinches his fist during a speech on welfare reform at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., on Oct. 27, 1996.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Welfare reform is 20 years old. On Aug. 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, “ending welfare as we know it.” Strategically placed next to him for the photo was Lillie Harden, an African-American mother from Little Rock, Ark., who had spent two years on welfare but now had a supermarket job.

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PRWORA dismantled the federal safety net for single mothers and children, replacing it with a state-governed system called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

As millions of people dropped from the welfare rolls in the 1990s, Democrats, Republicans and the mainstream press were quick to declare success. More recently, when poverty has reached historic highs, public appraisals of welfare reform are more muted but still celebratory. As Bill Clinton asserted two years ago, “It did far more good than harm.”

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Such celebration has its political uses, particularly in this election year, but evidence-based research tells a different story.

After 1996, a small army of researchers embedded in poor communities—ourselves among them—tracked how welfare reform was changing people’s lives. While the White House and news cameras narrowly focused on falling caseloads leavened with a few “success stories” of former recipients, researchers followed what actually happened to families leaving welfare. They followed women’s long-term employment outcomes (including wages, hours and job stability); access to food, health care and affordable child care; and other measures of family well-being.

Researchers found that many had left welfare for short-term poverty-wage jobs; others left welfare with no alternative source of income; and still others were faced with new unemployment or health crises and had nowhere to turn. And they learned that Lillie Harden had a stroke in 2002 and had tried to relay a message to Clinton, “asking if he could help her get on Medicaid.” While she had received it on welfare, she now had been rejected and couldn’t afford her medication. Harden died in 2014 at the age of 59.

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By 2014, nearly 1 in 6 Americans lived below the poverty line, 8.8 million more than in 1996. Numerous studies published over the past two decades (compiled for this anniversary in the #WelfareReformSyllabus) decisively challenge the “more good than harm” thesis, exposing the myths that dominate our public conversation on the legacy of welfare reform.

Myth No. 1: Welfare reform was needed because a culture of dependency prevailed among the poor, especially the “black underclass” and immigrants.

The most pervasive myth in the lead-up to PRWORA’s passage was that lazy black and immigrant women needed to be prodded to work and become independent. Yet thanks to voluminous research published before 1996, the White House and Congress knew that the average welfare recipient was a white single mother, and that while a small percentage were longtime recipients, the vast majority spent less than two years on welfare and used it during bouts of unemployment or a health crisis or to escape domestic violence. Studies showed that recipients already combined work, cash assistance and food stamps because jobs were scarce and low-paid. Welfare reform may have been politically expedient, but it did not address poor women’s real lives.

Myth No. 2: Welfare reform helped people “transition from dependency to dignity,” as Hillary Clinton celebrated four years after its passage.

Caseloads have dropped by 60 percent—or 10 million people—since 1996. This was accomplished, not by lifting families out of poverty, but by driving them away from public assistance through sanctions, punitive requirements and miserly benefits. In all states, TANF leaves families below half the poverty line. Data show that PRWORA led to a sharp spike in extreme poverty; about 20 percent of poor households with children—1.46 million households including 3 million children—live on $2 or less per person per day—a 183 percent increase since 1996 for African Americans, 132 percent increase for Latinos and 110 percent increase for whites.

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Welfare reform also intensified racial inequality. A revival of Jim Crow-like practices have flourished as Southern states have dismantled their welfare programs and pay the lowest benefits in the nation. Nationwide data show that caseworkers more frequently (pdf) sanction and cut the benefits of African-American clients than white clients and divert Latina immigrants from legally entitled benefits.

Myth No. 3: Welfare reform gave single mothers a “hand-up” through job training, child care subsidies and education.

In fact, states are not required to spend TANF funds on the program’s purported priorities of training, child care and other services for working mothers. States now use TANF funds to fix budget shortfalls in other areas; only 8 percent of TANF dollars in 2014 were spent on work-related activities, and 16 percent on child care.

Although research decisively shows that higher education is the best militation against poverty, few states count college as a “work activity.” As a result, the number of student-parents who were receiving cash assistance while enrolled full time in education programs dropped precipitously from 649,000 in 1995 to only 35,000 in 2004.

Myth No. 4: Welfare reform was a solid plan, but state Republicans took it in the wrong direction.

The federal legislation championed by the Clinton administration intentionally devolved control over welfare to the state level and ended cash assistance as a federal entitlement. The president and Congress ushered in state-run welfare at a time when Republicans were governors in 32 states and controlled the legislatures in 18 states. There was nothing unforeseeable about the draconian welfare policies adopted by states after 1996.

Myth No. 5: Welfare reform initially worked well but was not “recession-proof.”

Many studies, ours included, found that even during the economic boom of the late 1990s, many “welfare leavers” lacked full-time or stable jobs and were being forced into precarious conditions. This only worsened after 2007. The recession led to spiraling unemployment, while PRWORA ensured that families facing hard times had no net to catch them.

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The economic picture remains gloomy. In June 2016, 6.4 million “involuntary part-time workers” were looking for full-time jobs. Working full-time at minimum wage pays $15,080 annually, almost $10,000 below the poverty line. This is an especially dangerous time to be poor, when the social safety net has been shredded.

So how has welfare reform continued to be framed as a success?

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When PRWORA passed, the Clinton administration did not require the General Accounting Office to systematically track what happened to people once they got off welfare. This facilitated evaluating the legislation’s success by shrinking caseloads and employment rates among single mothers (not necessarily welfare leavers), which did not adequately capture what was happening to most poor families.

News articles included a "success story" or two, but these, too, were misleading. Millions of mothers in the past had used public assistance as a temporary stabilizer in hard times and then got off. But when politicians and news outlets found these cases after 1996, they trumpeted them as new and as proof of PRWORA’s success, while ignoring a mounting body of research showing that the legislation was severely harming most families.

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More recently, as poverty rates have risen, pundits celebrate work-participation rates, refusing to examine how poorly paid, temporary or hazardous these jobs might be.

Twenty years later, it is high time to get beyond comfortable myths to face welfare reform’s sobering legacy. A mountain of research uncovers a very different picture of life for millions of Americans since PRWORA’s passage: increased poverty, decreased access to college for poor women, poverty-wage work and imperiled family life. This devastating precariousness is a far cry from the political spin of moving from "dependency to dignity."

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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Alejandra Marchevsky of California State University, Los Angeles, and Jeanne Theoharis of Brooklyn College are the authors of Not Working: Latina Immigrants, Low-Wage Work and the Failure of Welfare Reform and part of a consortium of poverty scholars who have just published the #WelfareReformSyllabus.