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25 years after welfare reform, let’s revisit “the magic bureaucrat”

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Former Director of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services Larry Townsend.

Former Director of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services Larry Townsend. Gina Delvac/Marketplace

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It’s been 25 years since our country upended its welfare system – and so we’re looking back at our very first episode.

We spent that first season of “The Uncertain Hour” reflecting deeply on what welfare had become. Each of those episodes can still help us understand what’s happened to one of our nation’s oldest safety net programs, on this anniversary of its so-called “reform.”

On Aug. 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, meant to “end welfare as we know it.” It imposed strict time limits and work requirements on cash assistance for low-income families, and promoted a “work first” approach to the social safety net. At the time, “welfare reform” had bipartisan support.

Since then, a lot has changed. Some poor families left welfare because they found jobs that helped raise them out of poverty. But the number of families who remain in poverty yet no longer receive cash assistance has ballooned. In 1996, for every 100 families living in poverty, 68 of them received cash assistance through welfare. At last count, just 23 of every 100 poor families got that help. Those stats have prompted plenty of debate on both sides of the aisle about how welfare should work – and whether the current systems work at all.

In this reprise of Season 1 Episode 1 of “The Uncertain Hour,” we tell the story of the “Magic Bureaucrat” — the former director of a suburban county welfare office who helped launched the welfare reform movement 25 years ago, with the aid of a self-produced pop album.

Check out the whole first season to learn more — from the story of a woman who exposed the racism built into the welfare system from its early days, to an investigation of some of the very surprising ways states have spent federal welfare funds in the last 25 years. Money has gone to marriage counseling workshops, college scholarships for middleclass families and religious “crisis pregnancy centers” that try to steer women away from abortions.

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