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Throughout its history, the United States has struggled with the paradox of poverty amidst affluence. Why do so many people struggle economically in a nation blessed, by almost any international or historical standard, with abundant opportunities? Are the poor themselves to blame? Or are they victims of unequal educational opportunities, racism and sexism, or an economic system that favors the rich over the poor? As a rich society, how can we help poor families without fostering economic dependency, unwed childbearing, or other unintended consequences that may perpetuate rather than end poverty? How do we redress persistent racial or ethnic inequality without affecting the opportunities of others? How do we help poor children without rewarding decisions of parents that may have led to their children’s disadvantaged circumstances?

The paradoxes of American poverty are not new. What is new is the intensity of public policy attention directed at America’s poor population. More attention is being paid now than at any time since the War on Poverty of the 1960s. One major reason for the increased attention is America’s latest overhaul of the welfare system. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) ended “welfare as we know it.” One major target of reform was the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, which provided cash payments to very low-income families with children. The legislation sought to end AFDC and other government assistance by promoting self-sufficiency and personal responsibility through “work first” programs. PRWORA set strict time limits on cash assistance, imposed work requirements, and encouraged marriage and two-parent families as a context for having and raising children. Welfare reform legislation has also challenged us to re-examine the circumstances of America’s least advantaged residents. The reforms did not set out to reduce poverty. (Authors)
Population Bulletin
Washington, D.C.