Welfare reform: Dependence down, poverty up

Religious groups have been closely engaged in the current evolution of welfare. They have a large stake in improving the lives of the poor. All religions speak to the need to care for the poor and vulnerable. Religious groups are major providers of social services in America, and their involvement was encouraged even more by Bush’s administration, which steered money to faith groups that help the disadvantaged. Also, religious advocacy groups have monitored legislation affecting the poor.

Opinions are sharply divided on how successful welfare reform has been. Some poor people have fared well under the new rules, but others, though they no longer receive government assistance, remain mired in poverty. Causes are complicated and can include child care costs, low wages, health care issues, medical costs and more. Still, many people of faith ask a broader question: Should so many children – more than one in six – grow up poor while living in a land of plenty?


When President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act on Aug. 22, 1996, the United States adopted a radically new approach to fighting poverty. Gone was a system that entitled poor people to financial aid. It was replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a combined state and federal system requiring work and imposing time limits on eligibility for aid. Welfare reform also permitted states wide latitude to experiment with different ways to help poor people become economically self-sufficient.

The goal of reducing welfare dependence, as measured by reducing the number of people getting welfare, was qucickly attained. At the end of 1996, 12.3 million people were on welfare. At the end of 2005, almost 4.4 million people received assistance, a drop of almost 65 percent. Yet even as the number of people receiving welfare has declined, the poverty rate in this country has often risen, creating a confusing picture of life at the bottom of the economic ladder.

A years-long stalemate over renewing welfare reform funding and changing rules for the program was resolved when TANF was reauthorized as part of deficit reduction legislation President Bush signed in February 2006. In June 2006 the federal government tightened rules governing work requirements for people receiving welfare, eliciting criticism from some advocates for the poor.

Why it matters

Will we always have the poor with us? A 2005 Pew Forum poll showed that 69 percent of Americans favored increased government aid to the poor. But Americans also believe in the value of work, and welfare-to-work is built on that common belief. Justice, compassion, responsibility and effort are all values people care deeply about.

Angles for reporters

Welfare reform provides a strong peg for taking a look at how well things are going for low-income people in your community. What is the picture of poverty and work? Is the number of working poor growing? What do local social service providers see? How have things changed in the past few decades?


Policy groups


National sources

Policy analysts

  • Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

    The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., offers a trove of welfare analysis at both state and federal levels, including a searchable database of publications by topic and annual analysis.

  • Jim Towey

    Jim Towey is a Catholic who succeeded DiIulio as head of the White House’s faith-based program, serving as director until he left that post to become the president of Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., in July 2006. On Aug. 3, 2006, President Bush appointed Jay Hein, president of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research in Indianapolis, as Towey’s successor. He represented Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in legal matters in the United States for 12 years.


  • Mary Jo Bane

    Mary Jo Bane is Thornton Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Management at Harvard University and co-coordinator of the Program on Religion and Public Life.  She is co-author of Lifting Up the Poor: A Dialogue on Religion, Poverty & Welfare Reform. A former assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, her work focuses on poverty, welfare, families and the role of churches in civic life.

  • Rebecca M. Blank

    Rebecca M. Blank is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, specializing in economics and social policy. She is a past dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan and former co-director of the National Poverty Center. Blank is co-author of Is the Market Moral?: A Dialogue on Religion, Economics & Justice. Contact through the Brookings communications office.

    Contact: 202-797-6105.
  • Mark Courtney

    Mark Courtney is a faculty association of the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago and since 1999 has analyzed Wisconsin’s innovative program for putting welfare applicants to work. He said in a July 24, 2006, Washington Post editorial that today’s welfare applicants are extremely needy and will need help to work their way out of poverty, which could make it difficult for states to meet tough new work requirements.

  • Jeffrey Grogger

    Jeffrey Grogger is a co-author of Welfare Reform: Effects of a Decade of Change (Harvard University Press, 2005), which looks at multiple studies of welfare reform to explain why reform has been successful. He teaches urban policy at the University of Chicago.

  • Lawrence M. Mead

    Lawrence M. Mead, a politics professor, teaches courses about welfare reform, politics and public policy at New York University. He co-authored Lifting Up the Poor: A Dialogue on Religion, Poverty & Welfare Reform.

Religious advocates


  • Simone Campbell

    Sister Simone Campbell is executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby in Washington, D.C. She has organized several “Nuns on the Bus” trips, raising awareness of issues like immigration reform and economic justice. Contact her through Lee Morrow.


  • Stanley Carlson-Thies

    Stanley Carlson-Thies is founder and senior director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, which has called for a “Fairness for All” approach to religious freedom and LGBTQ rights. He previously worked on faith-based initiatives for the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

    He directed the Center for Public Justice’s Welfare Responsibility project and worked for the first team in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

  • Amy Sherman

    Amy Sherman is one of the country’s frequently quoted experts on faith-based response to poverty and welfare issues. She is director of the Center on Faith in Communities in Charlottesville, Va., and senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research in Indianapolis.

    Contact: 434-293-5656.
  • Ron Sider

    Ron Sider is founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, which promotes Christian engagement, analysis and understanding of major social, cultural and public policy issues. He is also Distinguished Professor of Theology, Holistic Ministry and Public Policy at Palmer Theological Seminary in St. Davids, Pa. He is the author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America.

  • Bible League

    Bible League is an organization designed to train and equip faith leaders and ministries with the tools and resources they need to provide communities with a religious education and understanding of the Christian faith.


  • Cheryl J. Sanders

    Cheryl J. Sanders is professor of Christian ethics at Howard University School of Divinity and senior pastor of the Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C. She has written extensively on race and culture and on the holiness-Pentecostal experience in African-American religion and culture. She can discuss the tradition of community work among black churches.

    She spoke about the church’s response to poverty at Pentecost 2006, a conference about social justice and faith.

Mainline Protestant

  • Brenda Girton-Mitchell

    Brenda Girton-Mitchell is director of the Department’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. She is also chaplain to the National Bar Association and is a deacon trustee at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. She can discuss the NCC’s work on social issues, including marriage, single-parenthood and families. Contact 202-544-2350.

    Contact: 202-544-2350.


  • Orthodox Union

    The Orthodox Union is the educational and outreach arm of Orthodox Judaism. It is generally considered a Modern Orthodox organization. Among its main concerns is helping Jews keep kosher and strengthening their traditional rituals, practices and holiday observances. It posts a page that allows users to search for Orthodox synagogues by state. Rabbi Steven Weil is senior managing director.

    The group’s Washington-based Institute for Public Affairs has backed the Bush administration’s initiative to expand the role of faith groups in helping the poor.


Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Ram A. Cnaan

    Ram A. Cnaan is a leading expert on faith-based social services and the chair of the doctoral program in social welfare at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He wrote the article “Defining Who Is a Volunteer: Conceptual and Empirical Considerations” for the journal Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (1996). He is also director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research and co-author of The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare.

  • David T. Ellwood

    Ellwood is a professor of political economy and dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He was an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 1993-95 and co-chaired then-President Clinton’s Working Group on Welfare Reform, Family Support and Independence. With both academic expertise and policy experience, he is one of the country’s authorities on welfare.

  • John Fitzgerald

    John Fitzgerald is a professor of economics at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, who researches family well-being and welfare.

  • Heather Mac Donald

    Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. She has commented on welfare reform in a variety of New York publications.

  • Thomas J. Massaro

    The Rev. Thomas J. Massaro was associate professor of moral theology at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. He wrote Catholic Social Teaching and United States Welfare Reform (Liturgical Press, 1998). He also co-wrote the article “Compassion in Action: A Letter to President Bush on Social Policy” for the journal America (2001). Massaro became the Dean of Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in July of 2012.

  • E. Roy Riley

    Bishop E. Roy Riley of the New Jersey Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America testified about welfare reform July 19, 2006, before the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee. He expressed concern about persistent poverty and a growing gap between rich and poor in America.

  • Harold Dean Trulear

    Harold Dean Trulear, senior pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Twin Oaks, Pa., is an expert on religion and social policy. He is associate professor of religious education at Howard University and is ordained in both the Progressive National Baptist Convention and American Baptist Churches in the USA.

  • Heidi Unruh

    Heidi Unruh is director of the Congregations, Community Outreach and Leadership Development Project and staff associate with Evangelicals for Social Action. She is co-editor of Hope for Children in Poverty: Profiles and Possibilities and co-author of Saving Souls, Serving Society: Understanding the Faith Factor in Church-Based Social Ministries. She lives in Hutchison, Kan.

In the South

  • Ronald Angel

    Ronald Angel, a sociology professor at University of Texas at Austin, is a principal investigator in a multiyear research project on children and welfare reform.

  • John Bartowski

    Sociologist John Bartkowski at Mississippi State University has studied faith-based poverty relief in Mississippi. He co-authored Charitable Choices: Religion, Race, and Poverty in the Post-Welfare Era (New York University Press, 2003).

  • Harlan Beckley

    Harlan Beckley is director of the Shepherd Program for the Interdisciplinary Study of Poverty and Human Capability at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. He edited the book Economic Justice: Selections from Distributive Justice and a Living Wage (Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).

  • Elizabeth Bounds

    Elizabeth Bounds is associate director of the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University in Atlanta. She co-wrote the book Welfare Policy: (Feminist Critiques) (Pilgrim Press, 1999).

  • David P. Gushee

    David P. Gushee is a distinguished professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Atlanta. He is frequently quoted about evangelical perspectives on ethics and was the principal drafter of the Evangelical Declaration Against Torture. He describes himself as a “Christian centrist.” Gushee’s most recent book is Changing Our Mind: A Call From America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church, in which he outlines his change of heart from opposing same-sex relationships.

  • Anne M. Hallum

    Anne M. Hallum chairs the political science department of Stetson University in DeLand, Fla. A specialist in religion and politics, she has written about the anti-poverty dynamic of religion.

  • Helen A. Regis

    Helen A. Regis is assistant professor of geography and anthropology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She co-wrote the book Charitable Choices: Religion, Race, and Poverty in the Post-Welfare Era (New York University Press, 2003).

  • J. Matthew Wilson

    J. Matthew Wilson is an associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. His interests include religion and politics, and voting behavior of religious voters.

In the Midwest

  • Noel Castellanos

    Noel Castellanos is institute director of the Chicago-based Christian Community Development Association, which works to reclaim and restore under-resourced communities, and he was appointed to serve on the president’s council for Faith and Neighborhood Partnerships.

  • Pamela D. Couture

    The Rev. Pamela D. Couture is the inaugural holder of the Jane and Geoffrey Martin Chair in Church and Community at Emmanuel College of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. She is the author of Child Poverty: Love, Justice and Social Responsibility and Seeing Children, Seeing God: A Practical Theology of Children and Poverty.

  • Sheldon H. Danziger

    Sheldon H. Danziger is an economist at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy who has extensively studied the effects of welfare reform on work and earnings. He teaches courses on welfare policy and poverty and co-directs the National Poverty Center. At a July 25, 2006, roundtable on welfare, he outlined four lessons learned from a decade of welfare reform: More single mothers have moved from welfare to work than researchers expected 10 years ago; a small group of welfare recipients have multiple problems that make it difficult for them to work; “last hired, first fired” affects those off welfare and newly employed; and when work pays, people will work.

  • Art Farnsley

    Art Farnsley  directed the research of the Project on Religion and Urban Culture at the Polis Center of Indiana University. He has extensively studied congregations and social services and is one of the authors of Sacred Circles, Public Squares: The Multicentering of American Religion (Indiana University Press, 2004). His most recent work is “Flea Market Jesus,” on the religious attitudes of flea market dealers, many of whom are religious unaffiliated. He has also written about the Southern Baptist Convention and politics.

  • Stephen V. Monsma

    Stephen V. Monsma is a research fellow at the Paul Henry Institute at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., whose books include (as author) When Sacred & Secular Mix: Religious Nonprofit Organizations & Public Money and (as co-author) Faith, Hope and Jobs: Welfare to Work in Los Angeles.

In the West

  • Pamela K. Brubaker

    Pamela K. Brubaker is professor emeritus of religion at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. She wrote the article “Making Women and Children Matter: Feminist Ethics Confronts Welfare Policy” for the Journal of Poverty (1999) and the book Women Don’t Count: The Challenge of Women’s Poverty to Christian Ethics (Scholars Press, 1994). [email protected]

  • Ellen K. Scott

    Ellen K. Scott teaches in the sociology department of the University of Oregon in Eugene and has written extensively about welfare reform and its effect on family well-being.

  • Elizabeth A. Segal

    Elizabeth A. Segal is a professor of social work at Arizona State University in Phoenix. She is a co-founding editor of Journal of Poverty and co-edited The Promise of Welfare Reform: Political Rhetoric and the Reality of Poverty in the Twenty-First Century (Haworth Press, 2006).

  • John G. West Jr.

    John G. West Jr. is a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. He co-edited the book The Theology of Welfare (University Press of America, 2000).

    Contact: 206 292 0401 ext. 110.

Related source guides