By the 1990s, many communities in America had undergone 20 years of painful, often violent socioeconomic deterioration, and policymakers were desperate for solutions. Among Congress’s many attempts to lift the country’s most disadvantaged groups out of poverty was the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). The law’s authors intended to make people less dependent on government support by limiting public benefits. In reality, however, it has had the opposite effect among people convicted of drug felonies. By banning them from certain welfare programs, PRWORA has permanently locked many Americans into cycles of poverty, drug abuse, and criminal involvement.

In President Bill Clinton’s first address before a joint session of Congress in 1993 he promised to “end welfare as we know it” and over the next three years, worked with Republican leaders to produce a bill with broad support across parties and regions. To accomplish the goal of “moving families off of public assistance by helping them become self-sufficient,” the federal government ended a previous welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), replacing it with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), a non-entitlement cash assistance program. It also divested much of the responsibility over designing and managing welfare programs to the states while requiring them to set time limits on benefits and enforce child support payments among recipients, among other restrictions.

By some metrics, PRWORA succeeded, with welfare program participation falling by 56 percent. The unemployment rate continued a steady decline until the 2000s recessions and has since returned to pre-recession lows. Still, those most in need of assistance have not felt these benefits. Between 1996 and 2011, the poverty rate has been relatively stable, while the number of households living in “deep poverty”– that is, on less than $2 per day–increased from 636,000 to 1.43 million. These households accounted for more than 2.8 million children. Benefits  from improved economic conditions accrued unequally along racial lines, widening existing disparities in employment, education, and wealth for much of the period after PRWORA implementation.

PRWORA’s failure to improve the economic conditions and financial independence of America’s most disadvantaged is largely a result of benefit disqualifications written into the law, particularly those that make benefits contingent on criminal records. PRWORA disqualifies individuals with felony drug convictions from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and TANF for life based on two justifications: one moral and one practical. The moral argument was that disqualification makes people on welfare more responsible for their behavioral choices. The practical argument was that disqualification would deter people on public assistance from using or selling drugs. Experience and evidence have proven both arguments wrong. Uncertain future consequences seldom deter rational people, and people with compromised rationality, like those with drug abuse problems, are even more prone to this sort of discounting.

The sheer number of people subject to drug disqualifications under PRWORA is perhaps its most harmful unintended consequence. The federal and state practice of drug prohibition, which escalated through the 1990s and early 2000s, rapidly increased the number of people convicted of drug crimes, increasing the number of people affected by PRWORA. Although some states have started to dismantle drug prohibition, as recently as 2020, 244,000 people were sent to prison each year for a drug offense. As of 2023, approximately 9.3 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons were there for a felony drug offense. Meanwhile, rates of reoffense among people with felony drug convictions remain near 50 percent.

These disqualifications are two of many collateral consequences individuals with criminal records face, barriers that snowball into a state of cumulative disadvantage that traps many Americans in cycles of poverty, addiction, and imprisonment. Collateral consequences of criminal convictions such as welfare disqualification make reentering society from jail or prison more difficult and are ultimately associated with recidivism and return to prison. Like other manifestations of drug prohibition, PRWORA attempts to deter behavior through severe punishments, which paradoxically offer little deterrence while making the people punished more likely to commit crimes in the future.

The unequal distribution of harm caused by the PRWORA among the population is also a major flaw in the law’s implementation. Disparities in harm are public policy problems, and welfare disqualification based on drug crimes is concentrated among people who are more likely to require public assistance to avoid destitution, such as Black Americans, women, and children. Black Americans are about twice as likely to live in deep poverty as White Americans. Approximately 11.8% of Americans received SNAP benefits in 2021. In the same year, about 26.7% of all Black Americans received SNAP benefits, compared to 9.5% of all White Americans. Similarly, Black people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system: Black Americans make up 13% of the United States population but 38% of the incarcerated population. This racial disparity is even more stark among people who sit at the intersection of drugs and criminal justice involvement: In 2021 Black Americans made up 50.2% of the population incarcerated for drug offenses as their most serious offense, though rates of drug abuse are similar among races.

TANF bans, which remove direct cash payments to needy families, affected an estimated 180,100 women, which reflects the fact that women are more likely than men to rely on welfare and are also more likely than men to be imprisoned for a drug offense. As of 2018, 56 percent of people living in poverty in the United States were women, and among people ages 18-44, women are about 50 percent more likely than men to live in poverty. Women are more than three times more likely than men to be the head of a single-parent household. Out of all the people who received some sort of welfare benefit in 2021, 51.1% were women. This difference is even more pronounced when considering only SNAP and TANF, 57.8% of SNAP recipients and 57.7% of TANF recipients are female. Women are incarcerated for drug offenses at twice the rate of men.

Unsurprisingly, welfare bans also adversely affect children (the population that welfare reforms ostensibly exist to support), with approximately 1.4 million children relying on SNAP benefits to obtain basic needs. When a parent loses welfare benefits, the rest of their family must rely on diminished income derived from infrequent employment and the benefits available to other family members. Reduced sources of family income perpetuate cycles of poverty and crime, inhibiting the ability of children to access education and healthcare and become self-sufficient adults

These harms might be justified if the threat of disqualification actually improved health and safety outcomes. Evidence suggests that it does not. People who commit crimes often have poor awareness of the actual penalties for crimes. Further, defendants are frequently unaware of and uninformed about the collateral consequences of convictions. They may be incentivized through plea bargaining to plead guilty to a crime without knowing the downstream barriers a conviction creates. Many individuals sign up for a lifetime of hardship without knowing it, inadvertently decreasing their household’s ability to be successful and productive in society. People who are classified as criminals struggle to find work and support themselves, and addictive behaviors that lead to criminal convictions are much more common among people who are already on the margin

Methodological barriers have made definitive answers elusive, but the existing evidence suggests a negative relationship between receiving welfare and a host of social ills. Studies have found a relationship between receiving welfare as a child and a reduction in unfavorable life circumstances such as teen pregnancy and criminal engagement. States have the right to nullify the disqualification provision, and the experiences of those that have are instructive. For example, recidivism rates in Washington State appeared to increase after the implementation of PRWORA and began to decrease once the state fully opted out of the SNAP ban and partially opted out of the TANF ban. 

Research on welfare programs more broadly is also helpful. One study found that welfare eligibility decreased recidivism within one year for individuals convicted of drug offenses and newly released from prison. Head Start, another social program meant to provide education and nutrition to families with children living in poverty, was associated with a 13 percent reduction in criminal engagement among first-generation recipients and significant improvements in quality of life and school engagement among those recipients’ children. Far from being a driver of entrenched poverty and crime, targeted social spending can be a multi-generational boon to America’s most disadvantaged.  

The implementation of welfare bans punishes drug users without providing a path out of drug addiction, poverty, or crime, thus creating less self-sufficient citizens and less stable families. PRWORA has further disadvantaged an already disadvantaged population, with no discernible public safety or health benefits.  Ending PRWORA may be a way to reduce crime and related harms. The correlation between poverty and crime is well established, and removing the welfare ban may help to break this poverty-crime cycle and solve the crime problems that worry so many Americans. Recognizing this potential benefit, many states have voluntarily ended enforcement of PRWORA’s welfare ban provision. In 2021, only 7 states maintained a full ban on TANF, and in 2022, only 1 state, South Carolina, maintained a full ban on SNAP. Removing the remaining barriers through state and federal action should be a priority for all policymakers who hope to fulfill PRWORA’s original purpose of reducing crime and suffering in American communities.