Since passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity
Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, welfare and food stamp caseloads
have declined substantially, employment and earnings of single mothers
have increased, and poverty rates of single mothers have fallen.
Despite the high marks, there are signs that not all areas of the
country are benefiting equally from the legislation.
outcomes of welfare reform may be different from urban outcomes.
Employment in rural areas is more concentrated in low-wage industries,
unemployment and underemployment are greater, poverty rates are
higher, rural residents have less formal education, and work support
services, such as paid child care and public transportation, are
less available. These barriers suggest that welfare reform may be
less successful in moving rural low-income adults into the workforce,
off of welfare, and out of poverty.
According to results from national studies, welfare reform outcomes
did not differ greatly between rural and urban areas. However, when
national-level findings are disaggregated by State and by rural
and urban areas within States, a less positive picture emerges.
Several studies of individual State welfare programs have shown
consistently smaller changes in welfare caseloads, employment, earnings,
and poverty in rural areas than in urban areas. In Minnesota, for
example, improvements in the employment and earnings of welfare
recipients due to welfare reform were smaller in rural areas than
in urban areas, and were not as lasting. The smaller effects in
rural areas result from differences between State programs in terms
of how eligibility, benefits, and work requirements are determined,
as well as rural-urban differences in job opportunities, availability
of critical work supports, and characteristics of welfare recipients.
As seen in county-level studies, the poorest and most remote rural
areas experienced fewer successes in reducing poverty and moving
former welfare recipients into the workforce on a lasting basis.
For example, 360 nonmetro (or rural) counties have had poverty rates
of at least 20 percent in every decade since 1960. These areas have
a disproportionate number of economically vulnerable residents and
have weaker local economies than other rural places, making successful
welfare reform more difficult to achieve.
As Congress considers reauthorization of PRWORA, the policy debate
will focus on many critical issues, such as funding levels, time
limits and sanctions, child care, and the adequacy of provisions
for future economic downturns. Study results on welfare outcomes
provide a strong empirical base to better comprehend the importance
of rural and urban diversity in welfare policy design.