April 17, 2018 Articles

Plucked from Legislative History: A Review of Major Reforms and Their Impact on Children in the Past 20 Years

By Nicole Scialabba

It has been 20 years since the formation of the Children's Rights Committee. And in that 20 years, a lot has changed in advocacy for children in the United States. To celebrate our committee's anniversary, there will be in-depth articles focusing on different areas of law that have had major impacts on children as well as the capstone event Children's Rights are Human Rights, scheduled for May 1, 2018, at the University of San Diego Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice.

This article focuses on just a few of the major reforms and legislation from about 20 years ago, reviews the proposed impact, and evaluates whether the proposed impact and actual impact aligned. Our society's view of juveniles has certainly changed, but it is helpful to take a critical look at whether we are on the right path in effectuating positive changes and advocacy for one of our most vulnerable populations.

Welfare Reform Act of 1996
In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWOA), which came to be known as the biggest welfare reform law since the New Deal by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. The bill created Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a program that had been in place since 1935. (Kathryn Edin & H. Luke Shaefer, "20 Years Since Welfare 'Reform'," Atlantic, Aug. 22, 2016.)

The federal funding came in the form of block grants to the states, which gave states more flexibility to determine their own program, so long as it conformed with basic federal requirements. The requirements set forth by TANF placed time limits on eligibility for recipients. Recipients were required to begin working after two years, and there was a lifetime limit on receipt of federal funds after five years. TANF allowed states to enhance enforcement of child support. The federal restrictions limited funding for immigrants until they were in the United States for five years; however, states could use their own funds for immigrant families. There was also a lifetime ban on food stamps for convicted drug felons; however, states were able to opt out of this plan. As of 2014, 40 states had opted out.

One of the main goals of TANF was to reduce the caseloads of AFDC recipients. Conservatives believed that the United States had become a welfare society, and so they were determined to end welfare fraud and the welfare state. The thought process was that if someone continued to receive cash assistance in perpetuity, then that individual would abandon all motivation to return to work. Encapsulated by President Reagan's reported story of a "welfare queen" who lived in Chicago's South Side, the perception was perpetuated and helped fuel this massive legislative reform.

Impact of the welfare reform act of 1996. Because the states received the federal funding via block grants, the amount of the grant decreased with inflation, which in effect causes the grant to disappear over time. (Vann R. Newkirk II, "The Real Lessons from Bill Clinton's Welfare Reform," Atlantic, Feb. 5, 2018.) The state was given flexibility to use the funds to fill holes in some of the programs offered by the state, which, in turn, decreased the amount of funding for actual cash assistance and child care funding—two of the core components of the AFDC, now TANF. (See id.)

TANF also had other incentives to reduce the number of people receiving the funds. Problematically, the reforms created a false equivalency between restricting access to welfare under TANF's stricter requirements and actually lifting people out of poverty. A recent study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, TANF Reaching Few Poor Families (2017), shows that TANF provides cash assistance to only 23 percent of all families who live in poverty. By contrast, at its height, the AFDC program provided cash assistance to about 75 percent of poor families. (See "The Real Lessons," supra.) In addition, the number of people receiving benefits has not correlated with a decrease in the number of people in poverty.

In fact, the results of the reform are pretty grim. In 2012, according to government data, roughly 3 million children in the United States live on no money for three months a year. (See "20 Years Since Welfare 'Reform'," supra). As of 2014, there were only 850,000 parents with 2.5 million children receiving TANF, which represents a decline of 75 percent from the AFDC. (See id.) Even though the number of caseloads of families on TANF decreased, the number of families with children in poverty increased by 17 percent between 1995 and 2010, from 6.2 million to 7.3 million, and the number of children in poverty climbed by 12 percent, or by 1.7 million children. (LaDonna Pavetti & Danilo Trisi, TANF Weakening as a Safety Net for Poor Families (Ctr. on Budget & Policy Priorities Mar. 14, 2012).) While the reform was designed to improve self-sufficiency and move individuals from welfare assistance into steady and stable employment, it has merely forced people off of assistance without providing enough time or adequate assistance in helping poor families achieve stability.

State Children's Health Insurance Program of 1997
In 1997, 10 million children in the United States did not have health insurance coverage. Many of these children were part of the "working poor" families whose incomes were just high enough to deem them ineligible for Medicaid benefits. After President Clinton's failed attempt to reform health care in 1993, congressional leaders and the administration recognized the need for incremental changes to health care, focusing first on covering children. The bipartisan support for expanding children's health insurance culminated in the passage of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. (See Medicaid & CHIP Payment & Access Comm'n (MACPAC), History and Impact of CHIP.)

CHIP was the largest taxpayer-funded expansion of health insurance coverage for children since President Johnson established Medicaid in 1965. It provides federal matching funds to states to expand health insurance programs for children in families whose income is too high to qualify for Medicaid but too low to purchase individual health insurance. (See Medicaid.gov, Program History.) The idea was to serve families whose income is up to 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

Some of the distinctions from Medicaid were that states had more flexibility in creating their own program and that there was enhanced federal funding. States could use the funds in one of three ways: (1) to create a separate child health insurance program from Medicaid, (2) to expand their Medicaid program, or (3) to design a program that combines options 1 and 2. By 2000, all 50 states and the District of Columbia were participating in CHIP and had children enrolled in the program. (See History and Impact of CHIP, supra.)

Impact of CHIP coverage. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation published a report on July 17, 2014, finding that from the enactment of CHIP in 1997 through 2012, the uninsured rate of children fell by half, from 14 percent to 7 percent. (Julia Paradise, "The Impact of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP): What Does the Research Tell Us?," Henry J. Kaiser Family Found., July 14, 2014.) By 2016, the number of uninsured children was around 3.8 million, as opposed to the 10 million uninsured children when CHIP was passed. (See History and Impact of CHIP, supra.) The Kaiser Family Foundation found that children with Medicaid and CHIP have much better access to primary and preventive care, fewer unmet needs, and increased access to specialists and dental care, though some research suggests that those receiving Medicaid and CHIP coverage have a harder time finding specialists and dental care.

Both Medicaid and CHIP have helped to reduce disparities in coverage affecting both low-income children and children of color. In addition, there is evidence that improved health of children with Medicaid and CHIP coverage also means educational gains that impact economic well-being and productivity. (See The Impact of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), supra.)

CHIP was reauthorized in 2009, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 strengthened provisions of the existing program and extended funding until September 2015. (Georgetown Univ. Health Policy Inst.: Ctr. for Children & Families, The Children's Health Insurance Program (Feb. 6, 2017).) The Reauthorization Act of 2009 allowed states to expand coverage to pregnant women, which 20 states now offer. (See id.) In January 2018, Congress extended CHIP funding for an additional six years, and in February, funding was extended for an additional four years with the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, thus ensuring CHIP funding until 2027.

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001
There had been growing concern that American children were not receiving the education necessary to allow them to compete on the international playing field. (Alyson Klein, "No Child Left Behind: An Overview," Educ. Wk., Apr. 10, 2015.) Congress enacted NCLB in 2001, which was signed by President George W. Bush in January 2002. The bill called for major reforms in public schools, and if schools chose not to implement the reforms, they risked losing their federal funding. (See id.) One of the most visible pieces of this legislation was the annual standardized testing schools were required to do. Students in third through eighth grades were to be tested in math and reading on an annual basis, and testing was to occur once in high school. Schools and teachers were evaluated on the basis of the scores achieved on these tests. (See id.)

States were left to create their own tests based on what they considered to be "proficiency" in reading and math. States had to bring all students to the proficient level by the 2013–2014 academic year. They also had to report the scores of the yearly standardized testing, breaking down the statistics for the whole school population into different subgroups, including students who were English-language learners, students who were receiving special education, and non-Caucasian students.

If schools failed to meet the state standards, they would face harsh consequences. Specifically, the schools were required to track their "adequate yearly progress" (AYP) toward the proficiency goals. If schools did not meet their AYP for two years in a row, they could be sanctioned. Sanctions were graduated depending on how many years in a row the school did not meet AYP and included allowing students to transfer to other schools in the same school district, providing free tutoring, or having the state take over the school, which could include having federal funds withheld and providing school vouchers. (See id.)

Another major component was that schools were required to ensure that teachers were "highly qualified," which generally meant a bachelor's degree in the area in which they teach in addition to state certification. (See id.) Another aspect of the law required school districts to inform parents annually of their students' performance and scores in school. (New America, NCLB.)

Impact of NCLB. One success of NCLB is that its requirement that schools release information about the different subgroups and their test scores helped identify where education gaps existed and helped demonstrate the need to better assist the subgroups overall. (Tamar Lewin & Motoko Rich, "No Child Left Behind Law Faces Its Own Reckoning," N.Y. Times, Mar. 20, 2015.) However, since its enactment, there were many problems quickly identified by schools, parents, educators, and politicians. Even Arne Dunce, education secretary during NCLB, is quoted as saying in 2015 that the law "created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed or reward them for success." (See id.) The 2013–2014 deadline for schools to reach proficiency was set out in the initial act, but as schools began to approach that deadline, many of them were failing to meet their goals. In 2012, President Obama began granting waivers to states. (See id.) By 2015, waivers were in place for 42 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. (See "No Child Left Behind: An Overview," supra.)

As a condition of obtaining a waiver, states had to meet other requirements, including setting standards aimed at preparing students for the workforce or higher education. Some of these standards included the "Common Core State Standards" or getting their state's higher institutions of learning to certify that their standards are rigorous. (See id.) In addition, states were required to evaluate teachers in part based on their students' standardized testing scores and target at least 15 percent of schools with intervention efforts. (See id.)

NCLB only lasted for 14 years before it was replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2015. (See NCLB, supra.) This new bill was a bipartisan effort, as many conservatives believed too much power was given to the federal government for education, which is viewed as a state-controlled issue, and liberals wanted to eliminate some of harsher penalties imposed on school districts and states for failing to meet the proficiency standards.

Parts of NCLB were kept, such as the mandated standardized testing in math and reading; however, the harsh penalties on school districts and states that performed poorly were eliminated. (Julie Hirschfeld Davis, "President Obama Signs into Law a Rewrite of No Child Left Behind," N.Y. Times, Dec. 10, 2015.) The federal government was barred from imposing academic standards like the Common Core State Standards; instead, it was left up to the states to determine what academic standards they would impose on their school districts.

There are still some federal standards and requirements, including for the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and for schools where more than a third of high school students do not graduate on time. (See id.) Currently, states and school districts are implementing plans to conform with the new requirements under ESSA, but it has been heralded on both sides of the aisle as a major improvement over NCLB.

These few pieces of federal legislation are a glimpse into major events and news of the past 20 years that have had severe impacts on children. These three different pieces of legislation shed some light on how the United States views poor people and the faults that were laid at the feet of parents seemingly stuck in a cycle of poverty.

While there may have been good intentions behind each piece of legislation, the impacts on children and the poor have been mainly harmful as opposed to beneficial. The welfare reform act did not lift individuals out of poverty; it mainly kicked them off of much needed assistance, creating more severely poverty-stricken families and children. The CHIP program has increased the number of children who are insured, but CHIP and Medicaid recipients still face barriers to specialist and dental care. NCLB created a rigorous system with no flexibility that was destined to fail from the outset.

In the 20-year existence of the Children's Rights Committee, the common problems our children face are still the same: access to benefits, health care, and quality education. There has been tremendous progress in these areas, with advocacy work, policy changes, and increasing awareness of the problems our children face. Much good work has been accomplished; however, there is still much work to be done.

Nicole Scialabba is a staff attorney at Legal Services of Central New York in its Syracuse, New York, office.

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