How the Culture of “Welfare Reform” Changed the US Army

 By Jennifer Mittelstadt

August 22, 2016, will mark the 20th anniversary of Bill Clinton’s signing of the 1996 welfare reform act, the law that “ended welfare as we knew it.” The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) marked a historic break from the federal government’s commitment to aid poor women and children. It imposed strict employment requirements on recipients of public funds and limited lifetime eligibility for support to no more than five years. As historical retrospectives and evaluations emerge, few recognize the extraordinary impact of the welfare reform agenda beyond the low-income single mothers it targeted. As the welfare reform agenda coalesced in the late 1980s and early 1990s well before the passage of the law, its crusade against “dependency” and for “self-support” pressed beyond the boundaries of civilian public assistance policy. As I discussed in a recent Washington History Seminar, the welfare reform movement also played a vital role in the US Army’s policies and programs for its soldiers and their families.

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President Bill Clinton signing the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Wikimedia Commons

The Army’s embrace of civilian welfare reform attitudes and practices began in 1991, during the first Gulf War. Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield marked the first deployment of its all-volunteer force in a major armed conflict. These armed forces differed in many ways from the draft military that preceded it, particularly in terms of demographics and social welfare functions. When the military switched to a volunteer force after 1973, the number of married soldiers swelled to an all-time high, and spouses and children outnumbered military personnel by more than a two-to-one ratio. To lure and retain married or likely-to-marry personnel, the services—especially the largest, the army—were forced to expand traditional military benefits to all ranks and to create a host of new programs. The army vowed to “take care of its own,” following its new motto of the 1970s. It offered comprehensive support programs from family housing to child care, health care to counseling, legal and financial services to after school programs. These programs were far more generous than any offered in the civilian public sector. Indeed, civilian social welfare programs were under political attack in the 1980s. Yet the military’s social welfare programs grew in this same period and reached enormous size, scope, and cost as part of President Reagan’s defense build-up.

When the US Army went to war in the Gulf in the winter of 1991, the army studied closely both its volunteer soldiers and their families, as well as its new social welfare apparatus; it was the first time it had operated on a war footing, and the army was keen to understand whether it enhanced military readiness. While the army initially praised its families and support programs for mutually enhancing the war effort, in the wake of the war, army leadership also expressed doubts. A fall 1991 after action report voiced concern about army families who had “relied too much” on the army’s social supports.[1] The document recounted wives who pressed rear detachment officers too often about everything from child care crises to broken lawn mowers. Senior officer wives also complained that some enlisted wives had been “trouble makers,” burdening family support programs with irresponsible behavior. Surveying the wartime experience, the army concluded that its many social welfare programs “create[d] unrealistic family care expectations.” “‘The Army Takes Care of Its Own’ motto,” the report’s authors concluded, “leads to these expectations.”

In the wake of the Gulf War, the army embarked on an effort to “redefine how the Army supports and assists families,” and it was this endeavor that brought the army directly into the orbit of the civilian welfare reform movement.[2] By 1992, welfare reform had advanced across the nation, as states like Wisconsin and cities like New York crafted new welfare programs under federal waivers that featured strict work requirements and time limits, both of which were said to fight dependency and encourage self-support among poor women. That same year, the army engaged civilian family researchers from universities—experts on families and civilian welfare policies—to help handle its perceived problems with army families and programs. As it happened, some of the researchers employed were just finishing studies of civilian public welfare clients. As they delved into research on army families and army family programs, the researchers emerged with diagnoses and recommendations that mimicked civilian welfare reform ideas. In short order, military wives were labeled with the same terms as welfare clients, as “overly-dependent,” “overly-demanding,” “multi-problem families.”[3] The worlds of welfare reform and the military had begun to converge.

The studies prompted the army to redefine its social and economic support system, just as momentum built for civilian welfare reform. In 1991, the army announced plans to “make soldiers” rather than the army “responsible for family readiness.”[4] Over the next several years the army created programs like “Army Family Team Building,” that taught families “how to serve the army.” It changed the name of “Family Support Groups” to “Family Readiness Groups.”[5] Army Morale, Welfare, and Recreation officials discussed media strategies that communicated how “our programs are not social services to ‘help people when they are down’. . . [but instead] encourage self-support.”[6] The philosophy of self-support accompanied material changes in army programs, as health care, housing, social work, and other programs were outsourced to the private sector or privatized altogether. In 1995 the army altered its official motto. Instead of “The Army Takes Care of Its Own,” the army now told soldiers and families, “The Army Takes Care of Its Own by Teaching Its Own to Take Care of Themselves.”[7] It could have easily been the motto of the historic bipartisan bill that Clinton signed ending welfare one year later.

Just as the 1996 welfare reform altered dramatically the lives of low-income Americans civilians, so, too, did the transformation of the army’s social welfare system affect soldiers and their families. In 2001, when the US military entered its second war in the Middle East in 10 years, it also went to war with its civilian-welfare-reform-infused support system, a system that placed responsibility on soldiers and families for “self-care.” Even as soldiers and families faced repeated deployments as well as unprecedented mental and physical health challenges, the army persisted with its policy of self-reliance. Army leadership told soldiers and spouses to remain “Army Family Strong,” as the new advertisement enjoined, as well as “resilient,” as the new mental health and support policies dictated. Both have proved exceedingly tall orders, and may have exacerbated the mental health and economic difficulties of military personnel and their families.

As we approach the 20th anniversary of the 1996 welfare reform, we should be mindful of its effects far beyond the civilian low-income Americans it officially targeted. Though the distance between the military and the civilian world often seems large, the culture of welfare reform bridged the gap. The late 20th-century war on dependency was launched against both civilians and soldiers.

Jennifer Mittelstadt is professor of history at Rutgers University and author of The Rise of the Military Welfare State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015).


Established by the AHA in 2002, the National History Center brings historians into conversations with policymakers and other leaders to stress the importance of historical perspectives in public decision-making. Today’s author, Jennifer Mittelstadt, recently presented in the NHC’s Washington History Seminar program on “The Rise of the Military Welfare State.”

[1] “Family Support: Desert Storm AAR,” May 29, 1991, folder 407, box 24, Military History Institute 1.
[2] Ibid.
[3] D. Bruce Bell et al., “Helping U.S. Army Families Cope with Stresses of Troop Deployment to Bosnia-Herzegovina,” paper presented at the 1997 Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society Biennial International Conference, Baltimore, MD, October 24–26, 1997, Military Families Collection, Center of Military History.
[4] “Family Support: Desert Storm AAR,” May 29, 1991, folder 407, box 24, Military History Institute 1.
[5] Chris Murray, “Basic Training for Army Families,” Army Times, November 22, 1993, 12, 13; Information paper, Subject: Family Readiness Groups, CFSC-SF-A, February 8, 2000, Folder — Papers from the Commanders Conference, Carlisle, February 24, 2000, Military Families Collection, Center of Military History.
[6] Memorandum from Rice to Evan Gaddis (BG) et al., subject: Knight Ridder Interview,” n.d., folder Media Queries, 1997, box 26, Harriet Rice papers, Military History Institute.
[7] Briefing slides, folder Community and Family Support Center Briefing Slides, box 15, Harriet Rice papers, Military History Institute.

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