Reflections on the 20th Anniversary of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act

Reflections on the 20th Anniversary of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act

By Gabrielle Lessard, NILC senior policy attorney
AUGUST 22, 2016

Someone handed me a megaphone, and I took a turn leading the chant, “No contract on America!” It was 1995 or ’96, and my sister and I were among the thousands of demonstrators in San Francisco protesting the “Contract with America.” It was a package of conservative legislative proposals and government operational reforms introduced by the Republican Party during the 1994 elections, in which they retook the House of Representatives. Its proposals were carefully vetted to ensure voter support. They included longer prison sentences and increased prison construction, reductions in capital gains taxes, increased defense spending, and a series of changes to cash and food assistance programs implemented through the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA).

PRWORA rode into law on the back of a racially-tinged narrative that portrayed recipients of public benefits as taking advantage of a generous system that allowed them to avoid exercising “personal responsibility.” It became law 20 years ago, on August 22, 1996.

PRWORA replaced the cash assistance program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children with a program of block grants to states called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). TANF incorporated mandatory work and job-search requirements and lifetime limits on assistance. PRWORA drastically reduced eligibility for the Food Stamp Program and imposed work requirements on many recipients.

PRWORA also curtailed many immigrants’ eligibility for public benefits, including cash, food, and medical programs. With respect to “federal public benefits,” it limited eligibility to certain immigrants it defined as “qualified.” These qualified immigrants included lawful permanent residents (LPRs), refugees, asylees, and certain other immigrants admitted for humanitarian reasons. (Certain domestic violence survivors, Cuban and Haitian entrants, and survivors of human trafficking were subsequently added).

Qualified immigrants were prohibited from receiving a smaller group of “federal means-tested public benefits” during their first five years or longer in qualified status, with exceptions for humanitarian entrants, and for immigrant veterans, active-duty members of the military and their families. Undocumented immigrants were already ineligible for these federal benefits, with the exception of Medicaid for the treatment of emergency conditions. They were denied eligibility for state and local public benefits unless their state passed a law affirmatively granting them eligibility after PRWORA’s effective date.

Over time, some of the benefits denied to immigrants were restored. “Qualified” immigrant children were granted access to nutrition assistance without a waiting period. States can exercise the option to provide Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) coverage to all lawfully present children and pregnant women, without a waiting period, and to provide pregnancy-related CHIP services regardless of a woman’s immigration status. A number of states use their own funds to provide health care or other critical services to immigrants who are ineligible under federal law, including five states that provide medical services to children regardless of their immigration status.

In many ways, we are a different country than we were in 1996. We are more diverse, and the majority of residents recognize that immigrants contribute to and strengthen the country. It’s time to repeal the draconian immigrant restrictions imposed a generation ago by PRWORA and to simplify eligibility for federal programs.