In recent weeks, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has suggested severe cuts to safety net programs such as food stamps and housing assistance, in the spirit of the 1996 welfare reform that moved millions of struggling families off the dole and into poverty. Comparing the safety net to “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency,” Ryan has proposed”welfare reform round two,” which would similarly replace federal funding with fixed grants to states, allowing local politicians to slash poverty assistance programs when the budget is tight and spend the funds elsewhere. “Yes, we divert [welfare funds],” State Representative John Kavanagh, a Republican, told the New York Times, in a recent article about welfare reform in Arizona.”Divert’s a bad word.It helps the state.” It’s certainly easier than raising taxes.

The practice of diverting welfare funds, and the human tragedy that invariably results, is hardly unique to Arizona. The percentage of families with children living in poverty who received cash assistance declined sharply throughout the United States after the 1996 welfare reform law, which transformed the New Deal-era Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) into the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. TANF, unlike AFDC, was designed to be a transitional program, relying on block grants and lifetime caps on aid to push recipients quickly out of the program.For a few years, the reform seemed towork. The late-1990s economic boom and an unemployment rate below 4 percent helped to reduce welfare caseloads while allowing states to use their TANF funding to plug unrelated holes in the state budget, guilt-free. But when the economy slowed down in 2001, and crashed in 2007, states were unwilling or unable to redirect TANF benefits back to families in need.

“Reformed” welfare—unlike the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps—had lost its critical counter-cyclical function. From 1995 to 2010, thenumber of families with children living in poverty rose by 17 percent, from 6.2 million to 7.3 million. But instead of expanding to meet the increased need, as SNAP did, TANF continued to shrink. Whilefood stamps reduced the depth of child poverty by an average 15.5 percent and its severity by 21.3 percent from 2000 to 2009, the percentage of families with children living in poverty who received welfare actually declined, from 68 percent in 1996 to just 27 percent today.Inflation has further eroded the value of TANF block grants by nearly 30 percent.

Poverty and welfare in the US 1990-2010

Researchers Luke Shaefer of the University of Michigan and Kathryn Edin of Harvard reportsimilar findings:at the same time that the average number of welfare recipients declined from 12.3 million per month in 1996 to 4.4 million today (of whom just 1.1 million are adults),the number of households with children living on less than $2 per day per person has more than doubled, from 600,000 to over 1.4 million.

Butfor state legislators like the above-quoted Mr. Kavanagh of Arizona, cutting safety net funding has been a no-brainer. “We have reduced our caseload, and we don’t have people dying in the street. There were an awful lot of people who didn’t need it.”Republicans like Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney are likewise on the record in favor of extending the block grant structure for means-tested programs like Medicaid, housing subsidies, job training and food stamps. “Welfare reform showed us how well a state-led approach can work,” Romney told a crowd in Detroit. “Let’s extend that conservative, small-government philosophy across the entire social safety net.”

We already know how thatstory ends.For the millions of Americans who struggle every day with hunger and poverty, Romney’s “small-government philosophy” is just another way of saying “you are on your own.”