Washington Law Review

Article

Welfare and Federalism’s Peril

December 20, 2017 | 92 Wash. L. Rev. 1721

Abstract: Recent scholarship on American federalism lacks case studies to inform that scholarship’s trans-substantive insights and claims. This Article examines the last two decades of devolution brought about by the 1996 Welfare Reform Act (PRWORA). It details the history of PRWORA and how the funding mechanism built into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—the TANF block grant—guaranteed the program’s deterioration. The Article documents the program’s failure to respond to increased need among poor families after Hurricane Katrina and in the Great Recession, showing how the federal government’s use of TANF in both crises teach us the limits of fiscally devolved programs. The Article then explores two potential paths forward for TANF as either a devolutionary outlier in social policy or as a harbinger of what is to come from recent Congressional proposals to block grant Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps). Public interest lawyers rightly fear that TANF could be the cutting edge of a newly devolved American safety net. The Article concludes by considering what the cautionary tale of TANF means for scholars of federalism and anti-poverty advocates.

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