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Former Welfare Families Need More Help: Hardships Await Those Making Transition to Workforce

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When President Clinton signed the welfare reform legislation in 1996, he said that a critical component of the legislation was to "make work pay." Five years later, many families who have left welfare and begun full-time employment are finding that work hasn't paid them enough to meet all their basic needs.

Among families that left welfare between 1997 and 1999 for full-time employment, nearly half experienced hardships such as going without food, necessary medical care, or housing. Families took on the responsibility of leaving welfare and finding jobs. Most former welfare recipients--about two-thirds--are working and four out of five have worked at some point after leaving welfare.

Because of the strong economy of the latter half of the 1990s, nearly any able-bodied adult who sought work was able to find it, and most did, thereby fulfilling the "work" part of President Clinton's plan. However, the kinds of employment these former welfare recipients found often failed to provide them with enough income to keep them and their families from experiencing hardships.

Measuring the hardships these families face is an important indicator of welfare reform's success. Given low unemployment and growing wages among the lowest paid workers, families who left welfare in the late 1990s should have been better off than those who left in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, this is not the case: the level of hardships among those who left the welfare rolls did not improve in 1997 or 1999.