Research & Commentary: Massachusetts Welfare Reform

Published March 20, 2015

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, implemented in 1996, ended the national entitlement to welfare for families with dependent children and created Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a block-grant program granting states the flexibility needed to reform their welfare systems.

In The Heartland Institute’s 2015 Welfare Reform Report Card, Massachusetts receives an F grade and ranks 49th for its anti-poverty policies. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, only 7.3 percent of Massachusetts welfare recipients are engaged in “work activities,” a broad definition including not only actual work but also attending college, job training, and job-search activities.

Proponents of the current welfare policies argue many people in poverty need aid from the state, but reformers understand the system requires taxpayers to pick up the bill for failed programs that can destroy opportunities for impoverished citizens.

Strengthening the sanctions regime for failure to participate in work activities and requiring TANF aid recipients to begin work immediately upon receiving benefits would likely cause a substantial increase in work participation in Massachusetts. That participation would make it more likely recipients would gain the necessary skills to earn an income sufficient for them to leave welfare rolls permanently.

Massachusetts has failed to follow the lead of 33 other states that have adopted a cash diversion program that allows case workers to make grants to people who need short-term assistance rather than requiring full enrollment in TANF and needlessly creating more dependency.

Massachusetts maintains the highest recommended limit of lifetime eligibility for individuals and families, 60 months, under the 1996 welfare reform law. In recent years, many states have adopted policies limiting access to certain welfare programs to less than 60 months, because five years of dependence on welfare can ingrain habits and lifestyles that make it very difficult to achieve self-sufficiency.

Other states have also increased the integration of welfare and state social services by co-locating service providers, which helps government bureaucracies share information and gives caseworkers more flexibility to direct their clients to the services they need.

Massachusetts’s current set of welfare and anti-poverty programs disincentivizes work, trapping welfare recipients in long-term poverty. Legislators should reform Massachusetts’s welfare system by adopting policies that improve opportunities for upward mobility and self-sufficiency.

The following documents provide additional information about welfare reform.

Welfare Reform Report Card: A State-by-State Analysis of Anti-Poverty Performance and Welfare Reform Policies  
In 2015, The Heartland Institute published an updated version of our Welfare Reform Report Card. This report card compiles extensive data on five “inputs” and five “outputs” of state welfare and anti-poverty programs and assigns a final grade to each state on the strength of the welfare policies it has adopted. In this report card, Massachusetts receives an F grade and ranks 49th for its anti-poverty policies.

Welfare Reform after Ten Years: A State-by-State Analysis
In 2008, The Heartland Institute published Welfare Reform after Ten Years: A State-by-State Analysis, which reports the welfare policy choices of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The report ranks the states by how aggressively they implemented effective policies. This data provide policymakers with a roadmap to successful anti-poverty efforts.

The Work Versus Welfare Tradeoff: 2013 
The Cato Institute estimates the value of the full package of welfare benefits available to a typical recipient in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. It found welfare benefits outpace the income most recipients can expect to earn from an entry-level job, and the income gap between welfare and work may actually have grown worse in recent years.

Comparing Program Participation of TANF and Non-TANF Families Before and During a Time of Recession
Shelley K. Irving examines whether participation in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has increased and whether employment has decreased during the current economic recession. The study also compares participation in other assistance programs based on welfare and poverty status before and during the economic recession.

Welfare Rules Database 
The Urban Institute’s Welfare Rules Database website provides a “comprehensive, sophisticated resource for comparing cash assistance programs between states” and allows researchers to examine changes in cash assistance rules between states.

Implementing Welfare Reform: A State Report Card
Writing for the Cato Institute in 2004, Jenifer Zeigler analyzes state welfare reform implementation and identifies reform policies that were most effective at encouraging personal responsibility and self-sufficiency.


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